Live Review: The Smile, San Francisco, CA, Dec. 18, 2022

“Free in the knowledge that one day this will end
Free in the knowledge that everything is change
And this was just a bad moment
We were fumbling around.” 
—The Smile, “Free In The Knowledge” 

To coin a phrase: 2022 came in like a lion and went out like a … puzzle with a couple of pieces lost?

It’s been one of the messiest transition years many of us can remember, considering COVID’s restrictions and wobbly recovery path, an increasingly uncertain economic picture and the tattered condition of our city now versus where we began the pandemic. (I cannot recall San Francisco looking quite as lifeless and empty—former storefronts with “For Lease/Sale” signs pockmark the downtown core—as it appeared when driving through its heavily graffitied streets this evening, notwithstanding the sold-out interior of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.) 

A bad moment, as tonight’s headliners sang. Not our best look.

But through it all, music has continued to work its cathartic magic, playing a vital role as both a conduit for all the angst and a channel for our energy and creativity. A balm and a force multiplier, all in one.

So seeing the Smile—the best and most successful of Radiohead’s various side projects—to close out the year feels like Peak 2022. 

The band is composed of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and that group’s guitarist/sound alchemist Jonny Greenwood, clearly the second-most-important person in Radiohead for many years now and, in some way, Yorke’s foil in shaping the wavy contours of its lengthy and diverse career. The pair is joined by jazz drummer Tom Skinner (Sons Of Kemet) and, on a few songs this evening, by opener Robert Stillman, an American now living in the U.K. with copacetic jazz chops and experimental leanings.

The Smile (the moniker is inspired by a Ted Hughes poem, which Yorke has explained is “not the smile as in ‘ahh,’ more the smile as in the guy who lies to you everyday”) is almost purely a pandemic project. Produced by longtime Radiohead hand Nigel Godrich, the music evidently came from a batch of unfinished Greenwood riffs that he and Yorke worked on during a gap in their schedules and subsequently emerged fully formed during a surprise performance of the new material that was captured via a May 2021 stream by Glastonbury’s organizers.

The trio—spare, angular and focused, its members trading off guitar, bass, Moog synth, Rhodes and upright piano throughout the set—made do tonight with a bare minimum of filigree: no artsy stage setup, mostly minimalist lighting, just three very bloody-minded musos seriously and earnestly pursuing their craft. And making the most of the best of Radiohead’s trace characteristics—Yorke’s mesmerizing stage presence, dancing spasms and penchant for minor-key dystopia; Greenwood’s years-in-the-making soundtrack-scoring skills and amazing musicality, able to conjure drama from melody seemingly at the drop of a hat; and rhythms that turned the evening into an exercise in rotating time signatures—while still representing something different than that band. The Smile is a sinuous, extemporaneous power trio versus Radiohead’s more full-bodied and precisely rendered rock/chamber orchestra. This was very nearly “Radiohead From The Basement,” the 50-percent (fewer, but also, more improvised) version. 

There’s also more than a fair bit of ‘70s about this music: the artiness of the first three Peter Gabriel albums, the polyrhythms of Talking Heads, side two of Bowie’s Low, the jazz flights of fancy you would vaguely recall from Miles’ Bitches Brew, Frippertronics—even traces of Gary Numan can be found mixed into the Smile’s makeshift melange of sounds and inputs. Of course, by the time Greenwood has literally put his fingerprints on the tunes and Yorke has added his unmistakable falsetto vocals to the affair, it’s really nothing like any of those artists, exactly. But if you pay attention, you can crack the code. Add a little ennui. Serve.

All of which translated to the group making its way through almost the entirety of the Smile’s debut album, A Light For Attracting Attention, along with a few outtakes from those sessions (“Just Eyes And Mouth,” “Under Our Pillows”), a few brand-new songs (“Colours Fly,” “Read The Room”), as well as a rockier, earthier remake of earlier Yorke solo trope “Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses” (a song I saw Radiohead play live about 20 years ago, just as aggressively). The Smile’s overall vibe was loose and telepathic: three players paying very close attention to one another as they slipped and slid their way through an inherently tricky catalog that struck me as way more “rock” (in the way that The Bends or even In Rainbows strikes me as “rock”) than “electronic” or, god forbid, “jazz fusion” (despite elements of both being fully present throughout the evening’s proceedings).

Perhaps the most amazing thing about tonight’s show was seeing the cavernous Bill Graham Civic packed to the 8,500-person gills with punters who were so willing to bop, sway and capture on their phones what can only be described as difficult music. There are no familiar, safe spaces within the Smile’s dense thicket of material (just as Radiohead hasn’t exactly let loose a river of choruses since 1997’s OK Computer), no familiar tunes, nothing tonight’s crowd would’ve heard on even the most underground of FM stations or tripped over on Spotify’s “Discover.” This is challenging, complex and (dare I say it) adult music presented with no sweeteners or enticements, and yet, you must assume that Radiohead’s core fanbase is perfectly eager to point itself at any combination of the band’s membership in whatever guise these guys choose to assemble. (Somewhat like the old bible verse: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.”)

Having introduced itself as a “new band” at one point during the show, the trio insisted at sticking to its knitting by adding even newer material on top of this already unfamiliar set of songs, showing you how committed the Smile is to this concept. Word is the band is already recording a second album, and if the new material it played this evening is any indication (“Bending Hectic,” one of the songs that proved a highlight of the encore, was a revelation, a composition that moved from light to dark, from delicate to heaviosity, revealing an extraordinary achievement; as was “Just Eyes And Mouth,” its dance moves fully intact), fans have much more to look forward to.

“Don’t bore us, get to the chorus/And open the floodgates/We want the good bits, without your bullshit, and no heartaches,” Yorke sang with tongue fully in cheek on “Open The Floodgates,” the beautifully melancholic keyboard-based number that started the encore. Surely, he’s heard so much of this from fans and critics alike in the years since Radiohead first splashed its way into the pop life with “Creep” back in the early ‘90s. But it’s as authentic an expression of his art as he’s likely able to muster in a year as jagged and strange as 2022. So ask him if he cares. I’ll wait here, tapping my toes in 7/4 time, while you do.  

—Corey duBrowa