Every June, the tiny town of Manchester transforms into Tennessee’s seventh-largest city, thanks to a sudden influx of 80,000 Bonnaroo attendees. And every Friday night, most of those 80,000 people crowd their way into the crescent-shaped field that faces the festival’s biggest stage, turning that single field into a city all by itself.
It’s a fairly lawless city, of course, filled with nudity, open defiance of America’s drug policies and the sort of inflated food prices ($6 for a slice of cheese pizza) that warrant FDA regulation. When you’ve got Thom Yorke serving as your temporary mayor, though, it’s hard to focus on anything other than Radiohead’s two-hour set of brainy, deconstructed dance music, which set itself apart from the band’s previous Bonnaroo appearance — a headlining show in 2006 that focused on back catalog classics — by sticking to newer material.
Apart from “Karma Police” and “Paranoid Android,” Radiohead refused to throw softballs to casual fans in the audience. Instead, Kings of Limbs and In Rainbows provided the bulk of the setlist, along with occasional cuts from Amnesiac (“I Might Be Wrong”), Hail to the Thief (“The Gloaming”) and an upcoming album. One of the newer songs, the unreleased “Supercollider,” was dedicated to Jack White, along with the possible promise of a future collaboration between the band and the former White Striper. “We saw him yesterday,” Yorke said. “A big thank you to him, but we can’t tell you why.”
To help drive home the sheer artsyness of a show steeped in amorphous melodies and nuanced electronics, the band played beneath a dozen LED screens that changed their configuration with each song, augmented by two onstage video walls projecting various patterns and colors. The stage would go dark after each song, only to light up sixty seconds later with a different tableau, as though a crew of techies had rearranged the entire mis en scene during the break. It was an ever-changing art installation, topped off by two Jumbotrons — each one showing six different shots, from Johnny Greenwood’s sneakers to Yorke’s eyeball — and a filmstrip-like videoscreen that ran across the very top of the proscenium, projecting the same images.
It was a challenging show, filled with the sort of cerebral, experimental music that requires more of its audience than most Bonnaroo headlining sets. Even when a group of amped-up fans near the soundbooth began setting off their own fireworks during “Reckoning,” though, it was hard to take your eyes off the action up front. For a minute there, we all lost ourselves.