75 & 76. London, Ether Festival, Royal Festival Hall, 27 & 28 March 2005

2004 was a long year without any gigs. After the weird disappointment of going all the way to Yorkshire and missing the demo, I jumped at the chance to get tickets for Jonny’s collaboration with the London Sinfonietta when it was announced in December.

The faithful Radiohead news sites become quicker on the draw than the official one, At Ease in particular is doing all the work, keeping up with everything that the band do, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

This outing is a big deal to the regulars, they come from far and wide for this tidbit – the Americans are here, Yasuko makes her annual UK trip over from Japan, Naz is here from Paris. Pocki and a load of the boardies all come to London and I meet up with various people throughout the day. Freed from the constraints of a gig, this is a civilised ticketed seated classical concert, we can all socialise and just show up when the doors open.

Jonny’s composing work is a side bar to The Band, but as this is going to be the only show in a long time it feels important to be here and keep up with developments. Apparently the band have been the studio and we feed on any crumbs from the table.

Jonny (in The Telegraph 22/03/05) describes his burst of activity with the orchestras as “an overreaction” to Radiohead’s decision to take six months off after their last tour.  He gives the impression that they’re not in each other’s pockets outside of studio time. Radiohead is just one of his many jobs as he takes on more contemporary composing and soundtrack commissions.

I have virtually the same seat in the centre of the stalls for both nights and as such I don’t have distinct memories of the two concerts which were distinguished only by Thom’s change of shirt and slightly fewer nerves from the musicians on the second night. I recognise Ed, Colin and various people from HQ in the rows in front.

The programme of stark 20th century compositions, Middle Eastern music and a couple of Radiohead tunes, is joined together by Jonny’s new work for the London Sinfonietta. The Nazareth Orchestra reflect his links to Israel and his love of Arabic music (presumably both through his wife and from Radiohead’s early success there which led to them making some enduring musical contacts). The virtuosity of the non-pop musicians is breathtaking and only adds to the oddness of the event.

It’s a restless bill – the fantastic spookiness of Messiaen’s Fête des belles eaux and at other end of scale the vibrant, exotic Enta Omri. Jonny’s own Piano For Children is a disquieting piece played on a partially detuned instrument. There is a weird tension in the air. Are we at a classical concert? Are we allowed to applaud? The audience is reverential in deference to the classical instruments, the awe-inspiring sight of all those Ondes in one place is beaten only by the sound they make.

We try to appreciate the whole concert, but really we’re here because Thom and Jonny will be performing a new song. This comes at the end of the set. Arpeggi, which features lyrics that had surfaced on the website, is performed here with all the special instruments and musicians. It will probably bare little relation to a finished Radiohead song, but it is the nourishment we all crave. The astonishing version of Where Bluebirds Fly, an instrumental now transformed into a vocal exercise pitting Thom’s wail against Lubna Salame’s otherworldly sound, stands out for me, being beyond anything that Radiohead could possibly have made on their own.

Video and sound recordings of Arpeggi and Bluebirds, which I gorged on after the shows, have edged the other music out. Everyone was saving their batteries for the man himself. Rarely performed Messiean is one thing but it cannot compare to the possibility of an unreleased new Radiohead song.

All I appear to have in my notes are a few scraps from meeting Tim afterwards:

He asks me what I’ve been up to for the last year and half and I can only think to say “working” because without gigs to go to everything else in life feels pretty insignificant. We share a moment of nostalgia, maybe there’s only me and him who remember what it used to be like, before all these other people came along.

After the show in the foyer, I’m on high alert but there’s no way Thom could come out and quietly mingle with that electric shock hair-do. I mouth “hello” to Jonny but everyone is vying for their moment so there is no time for a meaningful conversation, even if I could find the words for one.

We all need a gig fix and this is not quite it. It was like being given an aspirin when what you really want is a rock of crack.