What happened during the COVID-19 pandemic when musicians found themselves cooped up and unable to tour? They made music! What happens when, for whatever reason, not all members are down for writing recordings during the dark and difficult time? In the case of Radiohead principals Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, they started a side project with drummer Tom Skinner and recorded (with the aid of longtime Yorke collaborator, Nigel Godrich) and branded themselves The Smile. The result was the critically-acclaimed 2022 album, ‘A Light for Attracting Attention.’
There is an old adage that “[insert almost anything] is greater than the sum of its parts.” Rock and Roll Hal of Fame Inductees Radiohead might be the exception. HUH? Think about it. Yes, Radiohead is great. “Great” doesn’t even do the group justice. The quartet is one of the most talented and influential band of their time. But take a step back: take a look at the solo work of Thom Yorke or his other side project, Atoms for Peace; the masterpiece film music scored by Greenwood, Ed O’Briend’s solo projects….it’s hard to deny that…HA! Just kidding. Radiohead still reigns supreme. (Let’s just agree not to discount the individual accomplishments!) Individual accomplishments are not lost on the fans. So much so, that many Radiohead fans attended this show on blind faith; never before listening to a single track by The Smile. They. just. knew.
Radiohead and its members are notorious for selecting unique opening acts. Robert Stillman, tonight’s precursor to the Smile, was not an exception.
Pitchfork describes that “Stillman communicates through layered jazz arrangements, playing most of the instruments himself but conjuring the sound of a full ensemble—one with the ability to mystify, dazzle, and soothe with every twist.”
He is unlike most opening acts you would ever see, yeT somehow the exact opening act you would expect! While he primarily plays the saxophone, those standing any more than 10 feet away wouldn’t be able to tell that Robert was performing alongside any one of eight different preplanned cassette tapes, each of them lined up and timed for his performance. It was honestly amazing. He performed half an hour straight, and while nobody knows if it was all one song he performed or five, it was 30 minutes of one of the more unique and pleasantly surprising performances.
The Smile came out to a crowd highly anticipating their arrival. Most have been accustomed to catching Yorke and Greenwood in large sheds or arenas. This intimate performance is a treat! Many people traveled from several states away to attend this sold-out show. A grand piano, placed centerstage was the target of Yorke when he wandered onto the stage. He took his time to admire the audience who was exhilarated to see him. He walked over to the piano bench and just looked into the audience for another minute or so just to revel in the appreciation he was receiving. It’s refreshing to see a rock star, even one as unassuming as Yorke, still cherish the reception of a sold-out concert hall.
The band started with “Pana-Vision” (not to be confused with the Hollywood company that makes feature film cameras). Yorke tickled the ivory, Greenwood held the four string, and Skinner held the sticks. This arrangement is already pretty unique. This three-piece has a lot of holes they need to fill, even though they are the ones who dug the holes!
What does a band do when you have two well-known guitar players and don’t invite a bass player to join your new band? Take turns, evidently!
“Speech Bubbles” was their second song. The piano had been rolled away and Greenwood sticks to playing bass while Thom meandered to the guitar rack. Until this moment, no one is absolutely sure if Greenwood is going to be playing guitar this evening. It’s not until “The Opposite” that Yorke puts down his guitar and Greenwood assumes the role, as the frontman took a turn on the bass!
It’s not often you will see artists pick up an instrument that isn’t their most comfortable and take that on the road. Throughout the evening, The Smile took selfless turns, giving all members time to take the lead. Stillman returned to the stage on four separate occasions to join the band and take the spotlight.
The Smile was exactly what everyone wanted if not needed on this summer’s eve. Whether everyone in The Agora knew the songs ahead of time or were just Radiohead fans wanting to check out what the guys are up to, they had an amazing time and saw an amazing show. It really showed us the never-ending depths that these guys are capable of. It was more than just that, however, because fans also saw how much these guys LOVE what they do. They might not crack a “smile,” but it is evident that a good time is being had by all. They took one of the hardest times in most of the world’s lives and made something magical with it, and on July 11 in Cleveland, Ohio, they brought that magic to eagerly awaiting fans.