There's a not a band in the world better at projecting postmillennial unease on a grand scale than Radiohead, the six-man art-rock outfit from Oxford, England, that spent a lovely late-spring evening in Camden on Wednesday making beautifully jittery music.
All century long, ever since the career-redefining Kid A in 2000, Radiohead has been turning inward, relying on fractured polyrhythms, ambient textures, and Thom Yorke's elegantly alienated vocals to convey a sense of sublime digital-age anxiety.
At the Susquehanna Bank Center on the final night of a U.S. tour that began in February, Radiohead played a terrific 23-song set. It began with the glitchy typewriter-tapping groove of "Bloom" and ended just over two hours later with the enveloping "Everything in Its Right Place" — which, for Radiohead, means everything is in a constant state of flux — fractured into electronic clutter.
The band — Yorke, chief coconspirator Jonny Greenwood, his brother Colin Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, Phil Selway, and Clive Dreamer, all of whom played more than one instrument — performed only two pre-Kid A songs, the soaring "Lucky" and prog-rock mini-suite "Paranoid Android," both from 1997's OK Computer.
That might not have been enough for loyal fans wishing that the group would reach at least as far back as 1995's breakthrough The Bends, or throw in the cover of R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" they've been frequently performing on this tour.
Though the band now largely abjures the overtly anthemic impulses of its early work, that doesn't keep its shape-shifting songs from connecting, whether via the propulsive bass line of "15 Step," the four-drummers-at-once attack of "There There (The Boney King of Nowhere)" or Yorke's operatic vocal flights as they rose and fell on "Nude."
The Radiohead live experience is as stunning visually as it is musically. At the Susq, the band performed in front of an ever-changing wall of lights said to be constructed out of 14,000 recycled plastic water bottles, which fit nicely into the gestalt alongside the cheerful, Yorke-endorsed eco-warriors from climate-change awareness group 350.org who were working the amphitheater plaza.
As the band cranked up the guitar and delivered the ripping one-two postmodern roadhouse blues punch of "I Might Be Wrong" and "Bodysnatchers," for instance, 18 video-screen panels scattered above the stage offered close-ups of the individual band members, a deconstructed portrait of the band working in unison below.
The most attention was paid, of course, to Yorke, a wonderfully odd front man who at times moved like a spastic marionette and at others looked like a ponytailed and bearded Martin Short doing an Elvis Presley imitation as he gyrated his hips while gripping the mike stand.
During the absolutely gorgeous "Give Up the Ghost" from last year's The King of Limbs, six screens above showed him bathed in blue light as he sang in intertwined harmony with a looped recording of his own voice.
Radiohead hasn't done anything all that revolutionary lately to equal its Kid A reinvention, or the headline-grabbing choice to sell 2007's In Rainbows on a pay-what-you-wish basis online.
It hasn't released a truly great album in quite a while. But two decades into a career that's wholly unique in rock, it's still doing a bang-up job providing an essential service none of the many bands it influenced can quite manage: being Radiohead.