Thom Yorke at ACL Fest: Always thinking outside Tomorrow's Modern Boxes
Viewed from 2019, Thom Yorke's rise with Radiohead in the early 1990s rock landscape seems almost foreign. Their early hit "Creep" fit neatly into the crossing of post-Nirvana grunge with Oasis/Blur Britpop, but it didn't take long before "OK Computer" disabused us of any notion that Yorke's art would fit neatly within any margins.
His billing at this year's Austin City Limits Music Festival as "Thom Yorke Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" appeared to suggest a set that focused on his 2014 album of that name, but call it one more box that Yorke wouldn't accommodate. The 13-song set his trio — which also featured longtime collaborator/producer Nigel Godrich — presented in a 75-minute 7 p.m. set on the Miller Lite stage included only one number ("Truth Ray") from that record, focusing instead on his recent release "Anima" while also including several tracks from his 2006 solo debut "The Eraser" and a couple from his side-project Atoms for Peace.
Yorke's sleek stage setup featured three synth bays plus a keyboard, which he used for the midset highlight "Dawn Chorus" from "Anima." That was the only moment of the night that showed any relation to old-school pop-music structures, and it stood out starkly as such. Elsewhere, Yorke and his bandmates drew upon sonic swirls and rhythmic pulses, occasionally supplementing their synth sculptures with heavy bass beats or guitar accents.
Out front, Yorke was a livewire of kinetic energy from start to finish, weaving and bobbing and hopping and gliding across the stage in harmonic convergence with the music. And, never one to stay on the sidelines of sociopolitics, Yorke made his feelings about the current American condition known early on when he declared, "I smell bacon … I smell roasting presidents."
Did Radiohead die-hards flock to the fest for Yorke's set? It didn't seem that way. Legitimate ACL Fest mainstage headliners in 2016, Radiohead clearly has a draw that's different from Yorke's persona beyond the band. The modest but far from overflowing crowd seemed a mix of hardcore fans and curiosity-seekers, a fair number of whom departed midway through in favor of catching Guns N' Roses on the other side of Zilker Park or getting prime position for Tame Impala when they started on the nearby Honda stage as soon as Yorke's set finished.
Beyond the stages, on the western horizon just as the last light was fading from the sky, a perfect scene floated by high up in the sky as Yorke and his bandmates worked their way through the emotional "Truth Ray" and its "don't let go"/"oh my God" chants. It was a near-perfect V of geese flying south, passing underneath the evening star and a just-past-quarter-moon. Something about it fit the sound of Yorke's music beautifully, as if he were extending the reach of his expression toward the heavens. Not many people saw it, probably. But if you did, it'll probably be a lasting, lingering image of this year's ACL Fest.