Live Review: The Smile, Detroit, MI, Nov. 28, 2022

More than 3,000 people descended into Detroit’s Cass Corridor to see Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and Tom Skinner at the world’s largest Masonic temple. Nearly a century old and boasting 17 rooms, the Detroit Masonic Temple Theatre was saved from foreclosure in 2013 by none other than Detroit native Jack White.

It’s the perfect place to see a band like the Smile. Thom Yorke doesn’t write lyrics or music that translate as seamlessly to an arena setting as U2 or Springsteen, so a room like the Masonic Temple Theatre allows space for nuance much more than a venue that’s designed for ice hockey. Plus, with a room this size, there’s not really a bad seat in the house.

As the Smile took the stage, the show rapidly plummeted from the warm bath of meditative saxophone that was Robert Stillman’s opening set into a cold, dystopian hell, underscored by drummer Skinner’s stabbing synthesizer. In a perverse way, opening Smile number “The Same” probably made the people who only came because of Yorke and Greenwood’s other band comfortable. But don’t worry y’all, the two of them are still bringing the existential dread. 

There was an attempt to lift the audience from the pits of despair with the second song, “Thin Thing,” a psychedelic, free-jazz freakout that was a fan favorite after the band’s debut performance at Glastonbury in 2021. The Smile seems less complicated than Radiohead, and if its live show is any indication, these guys are reveling in the simplicity.

You can’t help but wonder why exactly this is a project that’s independent from Radiohead, though. Yorke and Greenwood seem to be the primary songwriting team in that band. Of course, with the Smile, rumors are flying that Radiohead is breaking up. Ed O’Brien was quoted in April as saying that “there is no Radiohead at the moment.” From an outside perspective, why else would two members of the same band begin a new project without the others if there wasn’t proverbial trouble in paradise?

The fifth song of the night, “Free In The Knowledge,” might shed some light on the state of Radiohead and ease the nerves of anxious fans. It’s as good of a song as “Fake Plastic Trees,” but it’s not often that bands that have been around as long as Radiohead has are able to consistently add new songs to its set. The last time Yorke and Greenwood came through Detroit, Radiohead was touring for A Moon Shaped Pool, two years after its release, playing only two songs from The King Of Limbs.

At some point, every band has to shut up and play the hits to some degree. So, would there ever be a time when “Free In The Knowledge” gets to be a staple of a Radiohead live show like “Karma Police”? Probably not, and that might be part of the reason for the Smile. Maybe, with this project, new songs can become new favorites.

There are parallels to this tour and Radiohead’s theater dates back in 2006, when the band was road testing the material that would become In Rainbows. The most obvious of which is that the new songs are the real reason to buy a ticket. Saxophonist and opening act Stillman joined the Smile on “Colours Fly,” and the song, at its crescendo, threatened to bring the entire 96-year-old building crumbling down into a pile of rubble.

The Smile felt loose and confident on “Bending Hectic,” and soon, the song built into a My Bloody Valentine-inspired wall of sound, where Greenwood bended the living hell out of his strings to match Yorke’s falsetto. If it wasn’t obvious before, Yorke, Greenwood and Skinner are having fun during these performances, and it shows.

The songs on A Light For Attracting Attention have some new surprises, too. Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, but I swear I heard Greenwood shredding at the close of “Skirting On The Surface.” Someone get Nels Cline in on a Smile session!

The night ended with the two heaviest songs of the set: “Read The Room” and “Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses” (a Yorke solo track from 2009). The bedrock of “Read The Room” was Yorke’s fat bass sound and Skinner’s groove. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Yorke was a Soundgarden fan. His soaring melody over Skinner’s ominous, deliberate beat is a page straight out of Chris Cornell and Co.’s book.

It feels right to see a band like the Smile in a venue like the Masonic. Yorke’s lyrics and melodies are always so disarming, and a theater show feels like the closest thing you’ll ever get to having a conversation with music that can tear your heart apart. According to Yorke, a new album by the Smile is already in the works. Maybe it won’t be so long before our next conversation.

—Jacob Paul Nielsen; photos by Jordan Close