There is something remarkably satisfying about getting to see a band born during a pandemic perform live in a crowded venue after years of canceled in-person events. Perhaps the expectations get even higher when members of rock royalty are involved.
Formed in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Smile — a trio made up of core Radiohead members Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, along with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner — made its first Bay Area appearance during a sold-out concert Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. The San Francisco stop, part of a 19-city North American tour, is in support of the new outfit’s debut album, “A Light for Attracting Attention,” released this May to great acclaim.
Given that Radiohead’s last Bay Area date was back in 2017, some in the crowd were assuredly hoping for a little Radiohead cameo by way of a few covers. But if those die-hard fans were initially disheartened once they realized no Radiohead material was in the evening’s forecast, it was a disappointment that burned off quickly.
Comparable to Radiohead’s more guitar-heavy and synth-laden work, the Smile’s music is both brooding and ferocious. Utilizing Greenwood’s ear for orchestral flourishes and Yorke’s unassailable falsetto, the addition of Skinner’s superb jazz drumming chops makes this band a worthy addition to the sizeable lineage of Radiohead-related side projects (Atoms for Peace, numerous solo efforts, Greenwood’s film scores) that have already come to pass.
A light for attracting attention… The Smile / 12.18.22 / SF, CA pic.twitter.com/ceO3Q2wpaa
— Sent from my Commodore 64 (@ltylerdesign) December 19, 2022
But fans of Yorke and Greenwood know just how striking their live performances can be. Five years ago, Radiohead shook the stench of a subpar Coachella outing with two gloriously rain-soaked concerts at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. Now as the Smile, the pair looked loose and fresh, possibly reveling in the opportunity to play a full set with each other and have no one scream requests for “Karma Police” between songs.
In the flesh, tracks like “Pana-Vision” and “Thin Thing” took on new life, veering between reverence, chaos and foreboding. On the latter song, Greenwood’s guitar and Skinner’s drums seemed to converse with one another in a spirited argument of sonic superiority. Then there was opener Robert Stillman, who was invited back to lend his frenzied style of saxophone playing to the Smile cuts “The Smoke” and “You Will Never Work in Television Again.”
Though he’s no stranger to taking a stand — and the Smile’s material certainly touches on several topical, terrifying subjects — Yorke did not opt to make mention of any former presidents or his proximity to Twitter headquarters. In fact, the frontman didn’t say much of anything on Sunday night, aside from noting he was cold at one point. Instead, Yorke chose to let the band’s performance mostly speak for itself.
“Despite Thom’s comments about the room temperature, I thought the rhythms were hot as hell,” said Charlie Capen of Mill Valley. “I haven’t seen an encore as good as the Smile in a very long time.”
Spanning four songs, the band’s finale included “Open the Flood Gates” as well as two unreleased cuts, “Bending Hectic” and “Just Eyes and Mouth.”
“It was like watching three talented musicians jamming in a proverbial garage,” Capen added, noting that it was like getting an insider’s view of masters at work. “The messiness was matched by their collective experience.”
Saving the best for last, the Smile took their bow following a raucous, extended jam on the rare 2009 Yorke solo “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses.”
It’s a song title fitting for a track from the minds of Yorke and Greenwood, but ironically, it was also cause for joy — a light, if you will.
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