By Ramon Ramirez, special to the American-Statesman
Radiohead let the late activist Nina Simone introduce the band with a resonant, agenda-setting quote: “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: No fear.”
Amid a haze of red lights, one of the most critically heralded bands of the last 20 years finally broke ground at the Austin City Limits Music Festival’s Samsung stage Friday night.
“This is a low-flying panic attack,” bobble-headed frontman Thom Yorke, here rocking a manbun, sang on set-opening “Burn the Witch.”
The lyrics doubled for anyone who had enjoyed legroom in the lawn chair area during the day: This space filled up fast. Even for a band that put out an album this summer (“A Moon Shaped Pool”) quickly buried in the zeitgeist by surprise streaming releases from Beyoncé and Frank Ocean, Radiohead remains a gigantic draw with name recognition for crowded acres.
The initial tracks largely ran down the latest record’s opening statements in chronological order with seasoned pace and a calming build. Droning bass, urgent and hurried drumming — it’s enough to get lost in deep thought and conclude that the worst people at festivals bring blankets and become indignant as hundreds of people walk near them.
“Good evening,” the 47-year-old frontman said three songs in, just before the band raised hands with 1997’s driving, guitar-seasoned “OK Computer” opener “Airbag.” That accounted for just about all of the onstage banter.
The band is a patient unit that can match the noisy downpour of last year’s ’90s-era ACL headliners the Foo Fighters, but picks its spots to drop the sky. 2003’s George Orwell-referencing “2+2=5,” which opened a record, “Hail To the Thief,” that caught the cultural frequencies of George W. Bush at his most politically charged and globally feared, simply rocked with anti-authority vitality that seemed written for the 2016 presidential election.
“Go and the tell the king that the sky is falling when it’s not,” Yorke sang.
Later in the 24-song set he went acoustic for “Exit Music (For a Film),” a pathos-heavy, crescendoing epic cool enough to play during the closing credits of Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.” In a cruel twist, the house audio went out during its swelling ending for a good 25 seconds — but the faithful sung together and stuck the landing.
The band turned to its seasoned blend of genre-bending electronics halfway in, piping in “Everything In Its Right Place” from 2000’s benchmark “Kid A” record, then stacking the pivot with a muscular, percussive version of “Idioteque.”
The Abingdon, England, rockers — Yorke, Colin and Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Philip Selway, and touring second drummer Clive Deamer of Portishead — excel at tweaking dials and honing in on humanity’s soul. At ACL, the band can make you stare at the void in self-reflective despair, then swiftly thrill with the warm, vibrant guitars of 2007’s “Bodysnatchers.”
Twenty-three years since debut release “Pablo Honey,” it’s a stunningly crafted two-hour best of that leans on the heft of opening and closing album tracks like “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” and encores like sprawling suite “Paranoid Android.”
“Thanks guys, have a wicked weekend,” Yorke said just after “There There” supplanted karaoke staple “Creep” from the setlist. Then he sang “Karma Police” to close the loop.
You’ll hear some awkward falsetto from brave participants standing within earshot if you see them next week, but in the pantheon of rich and space-attacking ACL headliner sets, this is a gold-star instant classic.