Powerful and relentless ... Thom Yorke. Photo: Edwina Pickles
FOR a band capable of playing weird, often electronic, regularly esoteric music, which seems further and further away from rock, Radiohead look a lot like a major rock band. And not just because there is the obligatory consciousness and fund-raising stall (for Tibet, as usual) in the lobby.
The tickets for their shows sold in minutes, online chatter has been hectic for weeks and the crowd building up all evening was all ages, all sizes and all buzzing. What would they open with? Would there be anything from The Bends, the first of their generation-defining albums? And would Thom Yorke do that weird, all limbs, no bones dance?
Not bad for five, and on this tour, six, Englishmen who try hard for unprepossessing when off stage and are buried in their songs when on stage.
Radiohead rock Sydney
English rock band Radiohead perform at the Entertainment centre. Photo: Edwina Pickles
But then they didn't ask for iconic status, it has been thrust on them and they've never quite got the hang of it. Which may be part of their genius: to be central to this story and simultaneously just out of focus.
Perhaps fittingly, before they came on, the music was fluid and electronic, rhythmic and pulsing but almost faceless. But then Bloom arrived in a blur of looped voices and the ripple of guitars over multiple drums, live and programmed. Above the band, six screens hung like artworks, split and reconstituted faces, hands, objects, mirroring the way that Yorke's voice was present and swimming in and out of the song.
It was a powerful and relentless beginning that was as limber as fish wriggling through your hands.
But rhythm was not the only master, Lucky reminding us of their emotional core as much as their guitar rock past. Each side of this band as exciting as the other in ways ordinary bands can't fathom let alone copy.
But then this is not an electronic band, nor a rock band, it is simply a great band at yet another peak.
Looking at my notes, there is a phrase I applied to one song reasonably early in this two hour-plus performance which could well serve to describe the whole night: a scorching merger of physical and machine.
Since recalibrating at the turn of the century – and of the 24 songs played, only three came from the 1990s – Radiohead have explored rhythm and technology not as an alternative to their original combination of emotion, melody and force but as a new prism through which those same intentions are viewed.
Rhythm infects everything, sometimes subtly and sometimes brutally, and those rhythms play instinctually (the automatic, compulsive, responses to the night's closer, Idioteque) and emotionally (the way These Are My Twisted Words projected a looming drama in the mould of a Roy Budd soundtrack from the early '70s).
It used to be the default setting of critics and fans alike to say that alienation was at the core of Thom Yorke's songs, even when a desire to engage, with trust, was as elemental as the urge to disengage in disgust. Now, after more than a decade of what was erroneously assumed to be an even more distancing approach, it's even clearer how out of step all of those assumptions and descriptions really are.
Oh certainly, Feral skittered and danced in and out of reach and Lotus Flower morphed around a pulsing centre, but you were always at the core of the songs. Similarly, the far older Planet Telex arrived phased and bent out of shape just enough to wrap its pretty chorus in shards of refracting mirrors, but you were enveloped.
In Videotape, little flickers of percussive sticks jaggedly intersected with the melancholy and, rather than undermining that feeling, they emphasised it by their localised pricking at your skin. Then in Nude everything was so loose of limb, so fluid that you'd figure nothing would stick. But the deep lying emotion, not to mention the sheer beauty of Yorke's voice (soaring here but inconsistent through the night and sometimes scratching for ground), nailed you to the moment.
Just as compelling and intriguing was the technology, not just the on-stage vocal sampling and tone distortions but also the suspended mini-screens which reshaped through the night, offering contrast and emphasis in equal measure. During one of the three unreleased songs played, Full Stop, they looked like a TV screen smashed and scattered; at other times they played with the ambiguity of the suggested intimacy in close-ups of eyes and hands. And always they were part of the story.
But then that's the beauty of Radiohead: everything is part of the story, from man to machine to our interactions with both.
Radiohead play the Entertainment Centre on Tuesday.