Radiohead in Israel: Stay Close to the Stage and Don't Expect the Big Hits

With their choice of warm-up acts - Arab music performed by Nasreen Qadri and Dudu Tassa - Radiohead's members have signaled that they love this place

A women walks past a poster advertising Radiohead's July 19, 2017 concert in Tel Aviv.
Jack Guez/AFP

Israeli audiences love Radiohead. Their relationship began in the early 1990s, when the British band came for three consecutive performances at the Roxanne Club in Tel Aviv. The performances turned into an essential part of the band’s identity among local music lovers, who later boasted that they had witnessed a living legend long before it was declared a legend.

Later the band came again, once to warm up for R.E.M. at Ramat Gan stadium and again to perform at the Cinerama in Tel Aviv. Seventeen years have elapsed since then.

During that period, an eternity in terms of contemporary rock bands, Radiohead released several masterpieces, including the album “In Rainbows” a decade ago, which proved that the band was even bolder than previously thought.

It released the album on a website on which listeners could decide whether to pay and how much. The storm the move provoked in the music world proved that Thom Yorke and his friends wanted to change not only the model for rock as we know it, but the financial model of the entire music industry.

Wednesday evening's upcoming show in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park will probably go down as another historic moment, not necessarily because of any particularly exciting performances but because of the warm-up acts.

This will be the first time that tens of thousands of Israelis will stand and listen to Arab music performed by Nasreen Qadri and Dudu Tassa. And when was the last time large crowds have shown up for an artist like Shye Ben Tzur, a master of Indian music, but relatively unknown here? The really great thing is that Radiohead did not settle for Tassa and The Kuwaitis as a gesture to their Israeli audience. They were a warm-up for Radiohead's tour of the United States, an achievement that no Israeli singer before that could boast. So in this context, too, of the warm-up performances (which begin at 6 P.M.), Radiohead’s members have signaled that they love this place – with its musical and ethnic trends.

Yorke and his pals had to defend their choice to play here against BDS activists like Roger Waters and director Ken Loach, who claim the band is whitewashing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Yorke doesn’t give many interviews, but he went into battle mode in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine: “It’s deeply distressing that they choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public,” he said. R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe later expressed support for Yorke, writing the following on Instagram: “I stand with Radiohead and their decision to perform. Let’s hope a dialogue continues, helping to bring the occupation to an end and lead to a peaceful solution. Sincerely, Michael Stipe.”

As for the show itself, Radiohead is an anomaly in the world of live performances. On the one hand, it is used to gigantic stadiums and parks, the performances are dazzlingly professional and the audience is enthralled. On the other hand, Yorke is not communicative. He sinks deep into himself, rarely engages with the audience, and even when he dances, it’s mainly for his friends on the stage.

Compared to soloists like Bono from U2 or Chris Martin of Coldplay, Yorke is a sour pickle with a beautiful voice. To compensate for the lack of communication, the band members bring one of the best lighting and sound systems in the world with them. Members of the audience should approach the stage, if only to experience the beauty that emanates from it, always a reflection of elegance, minimalism and lots of good taste.

As for the songs: Radiohead doesn’t follow the beaten track. The group could have done more albums in the spirit of "OK Computer," but elected to embark on inaccessible electronics in the subsequent album, "Kid A," which earned it much opprobrium.

In any event, they don’t release a playlist in advance of their concerts, choosing the songs that they will perform just before hitting the stage. No particular hit is promised in advance. That said, reviews of their current tour indicate that in Europe, the band has recently sung a number of well-known selections, including "Karma Police,” “Airbag” and “Nude” along with less familiar songs. The group will probably not sing songs that are too old. (“Creep” is actually a reasonable option this time). But Radiohead will definitely sing selections from “The Bends,” probably the best of its early albums.

Radiohead is more a studio band than a concert animal. Thom Yorke is a huge singer for small spaces. The studio is his ultimate refuge. His poetry comes from the heart. Ranging from whispering to shouting, he conveys an emotional world that requires a lot of attention. Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park, in this respect, is not the ultimate venue.

As long as the members of the Israeli audience know this isn’t just another stadium rock concert (like Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses), they may feel that they're experiencing one of the most rewarding musical experiences. Come to the concert in a sensitive frame of mind. It will shake you up, if you let it.