Four years ago, electronic music pioneer Brian Eno released an acclaimed iPhone app, Bloom, which he called "part instrument, part composition and part artwork." The polyrhythmic space-jazz song "Bloom" -- which opens Radiohead's latest album, 2011's "The King of Limbs," and opened the band's concert Sunday night at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park -- sounds basically like a fuller experience of the app.
Bloom, the app, is all about layering. A base tone hums, and you poke the screen to start certain notes looping, which causes a ripple effect on the display. Add some here, add some there, they repeat, repeat, and fade. Then you add some more. Eventually you realize that's all you can do with it and move along.
"Bloom," the song, started stacking its layers Sunday night before the band even hit the stage. Indistinct, spooky voices began looping. Radiohead drummer Phil Selway started playing. Portishead drummer Clive Deamer (touring with the band for extra oomph) started playing. Guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood started playing drums, too. With the groove laid and locked, ponytailed singer Thom Yorke stepped into the purple lights and began piling on his coos and wails. "Don't blow your mind with why," he sang.
Take his advice. Don't look too deeply into this experience anymore. After 20 years in business, Radiohead is a jam band now, a group of frustrated DJs making electronic dance music with live bass and drums. Songs, schmongs -- it's all about the layering, the groove. Why ask why?
Once worthy of a tag this newspaper hung on them, "the New Millennial Pink Floyd" -- and Roger Waters' spectacular revival of "The Wall" was just in Chicago on Friday -- Radiohead today owes more to "Laughingstock"-era Talk Talk and turn-of-the-century Poi Dog Pondering. The music is often impressive, but the feel and the vibe have triumphed over the song, certainly the lyrics. Heady, indeed, but not overly intellectual.
Since taking its initially creative and electronically guided left turn after its first two alt-rock albums, "Pablo Honey" (1993) and "The Bends" (1995), which were both virtually ignored Sunday night, Radiohead seems on a continual search for that dynamic G-spot between electronic knob-twiddling and an actual sweaty, human rhythm section. Sunday's concert was an alternating jittery and sleepy display of how far they've gone since that left turn -- and how they seem to be stuck on that road, unable to turn again.
For less than two hours, the beats and drones ebbed and flowed, never really breaking through. Rhythm ruled, with the two main kits always skittering away, but sometimes, as during "There There," four members were playing drums. (Who do they think they are? Chicago's A Lull?) The ever-scruffy Yorke had plenty to dance to, shaking and spazzing, doing his crazy puppet dance during "The Gloaming" and some kind of broken-leg Twist during "15 Step." During the fat, fuzzy slide groove of "Myxomatosis," he shook his hips and wagged his tongue.
The requisite mid-show ballad segment featured Yorke at the piano and sagged like a Sarah McLachlan lullaby. The plunking piano and amiable amble of "Karma Police," however, revived the crowd and seemed tailored for a guest spot from, say, members of Wilco (a few of whom were in Friday's audience). Yorke closed the first encore back at the piano, noodling through a line or two of R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" before settling into the featureless riff of "Everything in Its Right Place."
The layering effect can be dazzling. "Morning Mr. Magpie" fused metronomic speed and an extra bass guitar with remarkably airy ease. The electric squawks and beat-box of "Idioteque" got the crowd jumping, while Yorke yelped and (basically) rapped. But since Greenwood spent much of Sunday night shunning his guitar, sometimes the drum-and-bass was really all there was to it. A new song, "Full Stop" -- in its concert debut -- made the best use of the two drummers and ratcheted up the tension in the drone. Still, it was just another stack of effects that merely ended rather than reaching a conclusion.
"Just 'cause you feel it doesn't mean it's there," Yorke sang again in "There There." Take that advice, too, because there's just not as much there there as there used to be.
Radiohead's set list Sunday night:
"Morning Mr. Magpie"
"The Amazing Sounds of Orgy"
"Little by Little"
"The One I Love"/"Everything In Its Right Place"
"Give Up the Ghost"
"Street Spirit (Fade Out)"