Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea are playing hooky from their bands this year to throw some strange little dance parties. On Wednesday, the band they share with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, drummer Joey Waronker and percussionist Mauro Refosco -- Atoms for Peace – threw down at the UIC Pavilion.
At one point, the quintet dipped into the deep corners of Radiohead’s catalog to play “Paperbag Writer.” With its queasy strings and pronounced bass line, the studio version is a bittersweet commentary on paranoid warmongers. “Take your armor off, you’re not under attack,” Yorke crooned. But Atoms for Peace didn’t hew closely to the Radiohead blueprint.
Keyboards swerved in and out, as if bending around the relentless beats. Flea’s bass bubbled higher in the mix and then stopped altogether, leaving even more space for Waronker and Refosco to thunder away on their armada of percussion instruments. The space also gave the bassist room to dance, throwing his knees up from under his kilt while his shoulders shook. Like Flea’s bass, Yorke’s chilling vocals were no match for the waves of rhythm.
It was one of many moments during the 17-song, nearly two-hour set when the band made its studio recordings feel like mere sketches. This show was about the possibilities in all those electronic glitches and shadowy textures culled from the Atoms for Peace debut album, “Amok,” and Yorke’s 2006 solo recording, “The Eraser.”
A 2010 tour with the Atoms for Peace lineup demonstrated how the insular laptop compositions on “The Eraser” could be transformed by five musicians playing together in real time. On Wednesday, the group pushed the sound toward the cradle of rhythm music in Africa, accenting it with their own avant-garde flourishes – the sound of cutlery smashing against a steel tabletop, cicadas serenading the dusk, pebbles pounding a windowpane.
The opening “Before Your Very Eyes …” set the tone, with parallel streams of percussion that raced side by side, then merged. Yorke’s voice floated serenely above the flood, as if watching the carnage below from the safety of a cloud. The singer embodied the physicality of “Default,” shadow-boxing with the ping-pong beats while a Godrich synthesizer line belched. Refosco sawed away at a one-string violin to enhance the all-enveloping drone of “The Clock,” and still the drums wouldn’t let up.
In some ways, the band was almost too revved up. The tempos started fast and kept surging. Counterpoint rhythms shifted in and out, but there wasn’t a lot of room to gulp for air. Occasionally Yorke sat at a keyboard to begin what might’ve been a sad aria in his high, fragile tenor. On “Unless,” he channeled the ululations of Pakistani sacred music. But inevitably the band would break him out of his reverie and send him off to jitterbug again.
If the song titled “Stuck Together Pieces” suggested how the tracks came together in the studio – a collage of sound edited until it found a shape – the live performance illuminated how these artificial constructions were transfigured into something visceral in performance. Flea’s bass built a spine and the beats accumulated strength. Then Waronker and Refosco dropped their sticks and started clapping their hands overhead until the audience joined in and hijacked the tune.
As the band prepared to jump into the final song, “Black Swan,” the house lights came on. “I can see every one of you mothers,” Yorke said with a grin. “You better dance to this.” Then he played the song’s snaky guitar riff and the drums continued their relentless roll.
Atoms for Peace set list Wednesday at UIC Pavilion
1. Before Your Very Eyes...
3. The Clock
5. Stuck Together Pieces
7. And It Rained All Night
8. Harrowdown Hill