Atoms For Peace live in New York
- By Amy Nielsen -
- Sep 13, 2012
I woke up in Brooklyn on Saturday morning to a peculiar sound. Just a few tap, tap, taps at first. Then, a din of noise, punctuated by skittering beats and booming bass. This was, after all, the day Thom Yorke of Radiohead was set to DJ as Atoms For Peace in nearby Queens.
Was it the soundcheck? Had dear Thomas travelled all the way to my sixth floor apartment to serenade me? Alas, no. It was a downpour.
Anyone who lives in New York City knew the day spelled trouble. The morning rain flooded borough streets, tornado warnings were circulating, and severe thunderstorms would purportedly terrorize the evening. But more importantly, those of us holding tickets to the summer’s last Warm Up event received notice to arrive at MoMA PS1 as early as possible; the courtyard of the Queens public-school-turned-art-gallery would be full to the brim.
Catching Atoms For Peace that evening suddenly felt like a challenge from the gods.
If you are new to the musical force that is Atoms For Peace, allow me to introduce you. Spearheaded by Radiohead frontman Yorke, the band formed several years ago to bring to life his 2006 solo effort, 'The Eraser'. Its members include Flea (bass: Red Hot Chili Peppers), Nigel Godrich (Radiohead producer), Joey Waronker (session drums: Beck, Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M.), and Mauro Refosco (percussion: David Byrne, Red Hot Chili Peppers). They undertook a short tour in 2010 to play 'The Eraser' in its entirety, plus test out some old Radiohead favorites and potential tracks for what would be ‘The King of Limbs’ (2011). Only recently did Yorke announce that the band would release a full Atoms For Peace album in 2013, giving us new track ‘Default’ as a teaser. Armed with this recent buzz, their headlining slot at PS1 could do no wrong.
Thus, die-hard Radiohead fans read the advice to arrive early and chuckled. You see, this group - a curious proportion of which are women in their 30's - has a habit of showing up obscenely early for all Thom Yorke-affiliated events. And I totally get it; from experience, a taste of Yorke's attention from the front rail eliminates any desire to see him from any other vantage point, ever again. While the DJ set on Saturday would feature only he and Godrich, it was not exempt from our rabid fandom. Show up as early as possible? Of course.
The rest of the crowd, perhaps unimpressed with the advice or simply wary of the approaching cloud cover, took a bit longer to file into the concrete-walled courtyard of MoMA PS1. Many stopped just inside the entrance to gawk at ‘Wendy’, a giant fabric Sonic the Hedgehog-like structure rigged up on scaffolding - half modern art, half outdoor cooling system.
The beer lines grew long, the crowd more New York by the New York minute. And just about the moment when the venue reached capacity, it became very clear that the sky would dump buckets on all of us. Godrich tweeted, likely from the safety of a hotel, ‘Is it true it's gonna rain?? Is this shin dig really outside?? Answers on a postcard please…’
And it did rain, and the party was outside. One good thing about the insufferably steamy New York summer is that, once it’s over, we are more than willing to take a cold outdoor shower. Yorke and Godrich finally emerged to the first genuine bout of enthusiasm all afternoon. Yorke donned a familiar outfit, one seen on this year’s Radiohead tour and in the same vein as his getup in Radiohead’s ‘Lotus Flower’, Godrich kept it simple in a blue tee.
The beginning of the set was a sweet, sweet surprise. Godrich started the electronic backing track, but it didn’t sound familiar. Yorke, standing behind the console, pulled out a small notebook and seemed to be examining it for several moments. He then looked up, strolled around to the front of the stage, and, microphone in hand, began to sing. Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be just a DJ set?
What followed was four new songs, all with Yorke’s live vocals. New Atoms For Peace tracks, new solo Thom Yorke material, or (deep breath), new Radiohead? We will go ahead and assume that they were songs from the upcoming album, but Yorke’s tangible influence on the moody rise-and-fall melodies, structure and feel of the songs elicited many proclamations that it sounded like Radiohead. In any case, the die-hards up front were no doubt overjoyed by the new material. Yorke’s crooning, while muffled through the sound system, still sounded top-notch even after a full year of touring. However, the mood of the songs didn’t quite deliver the pick-me-up the crowd had anticipated. Many seemed to wonder when the real dancing could begin, but their answer arrived as soon as Yorke relinquished the microphone.
Thom and Nigel continued the set as a tag team, taking turns at the MacBook console. Yorke distinguished himself within the pair by pulling more obscure, bass-heavy tracks like DJ Shadow’s ‘Organ Donor’ and Jaylib’s ‘Champion Sound’. Fans could tell you that Yorke has developed a penchant for cerebral hip-hop-tronica (new genre!) since Radiohead’s 2007 album ‘In Rainbows’. His song selection on Saturday read out as expected, mimicking his ‘Office Chart’ playlists on Radiohead.com. Godrich, on the other hand, tended towards more familiar old school hip-hop and dance tunes. The pair rolled through The Beastie Boys’ ‘Shake Your Rump’, Azealia Banks’ ‘212’ and Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’. The crowd, ever nostalgic for the 90’s, cheered for nods to Public Enemy and Blackalicious, and the DJ duo introduced us to reggae artists Shy FX and Cutty Ranks.
As the two-hour set reached its halfway point, the party ratcheted up. The initially sardine-packed crowd had thinned enough to allow everyone to dance comfortably. Those attracted to the event merely for its buzz went home, not because Atoms For Peace didn’t live up to expectations, but because standing in the persistent rain apparently wasn’t worth it. Not so for the rest of us. We danced in puddles to Fela Kuti, SBTRKT, and Machine Drum, and while Godrich tweeted photos of the crowd over Yorke’s shoulder, he acknowledged what we below already knew: ‘this crowd is amazing…And its just started raining again!!’
Thom Yorke was truly in his element on Saturday. After a long year touring with Radiohead, perhaps he was relieved to finally let loose with a less uptight crowd. The last song arrived; Yorke and Godrich expressed utter exuberance and thanks, and we responded in kind. New York City had delivered a clear message to Atoms For Peace that night: come play our backyard party anytime, and please bring your Oxford weather with you.
Image by Renee Masse