Thursday, March 10, 2011
Thom Yorke does a surprise DJ set at Low End Theory
By 2 p.m. Wednesday the secret was out. Thom Yorke, the lead singer of Radiohead, was allegedly playing Low End Theory in Lincoln Heights. Maybe. After all, you can’t really predict the behavior of someone like the mercurial Yorke, you can only hope to be in the right place when it boomerangs in your direction.
By sunset the line had already started to stretch around Broadway. Twitter rumors and half-baked hypotheses clogged the Internet, but no one would give a confirmation. Nearly 20 years into his career, the rock star has long since reached the rarefied plateau typically only inhabited by the most famous and feted. He’s like an Anglo analogue to Prince — elfin, erratic and affected by a quintessentially British melancholia. And if you hear a rumor that he’s playing a secret show, you go, fully cognizant that the show may not materialize.
At 10 p.m. it was all off. Yorke had had second thoughts, a decision that triggered an immediate mood shift from collective euphoria to “Christmas has just been canceled.” Several left and were immediately replaced by an influx of others undeterred by the latest intelligence. Radiohead doesn’t have casual fans, they have rabid cultists, and most were unwilling to believe that Yorke wouldn’t come through. It made too much sense. They’d have readily accepted that he was going to ride in on a black swan while accompanied by a Bollywood string orchestra and Flea before believing that he’d let them down.
Indeed, the Oxfordshire native has practically become a semi-permanent Southern California resident — partially repudiating “Fake Plastic Trees” while avowing his love for the mutant bass and eccentric raps roaring out of the Airliner every Wednesday. He’s collaborated with the club’s most famed emissary, Flying Lotus, shouted out Samiyam and Ras G, and even allowed the LET’s trademark disembodied beats to seep onto the latest Radiohead album. Other than rocking a Low End T-shirt on Sunset Boulevard, Yorke had done everything possible to endorse the beat music hub except actually show his face. But by a quarter past 11, he’d obliterated that last obstacle.
Who knows exactly what changed Yorke’s mind? I was told that Lotus had texted him photos of the pandemonium, which subsequently swayed him back on track. Then again, I’d be just as apt to believe it was a visit from an ancient and obscure German god of dance. That would explain the Kraftwerk and Modeselektor he spun during his DJ set.
No one had a clue what to expect from the enigmatic frontman. Judging from the rapturous response he received upon taking the stage, he could’ve very well played Teutonic forest chants based on Grimm Brothers fairy tales and the crowd would have called hailed it as genius.
“We have a very special guest tonight … act like he’s one of us. He is one of us,” said Daddy Kev, the Low End Theory co-founder.
Shrieks (male and female.) Clouds of smoke. A girl in front of me texted to a friend: “I’m looking at Thom Yorke….ahhhhhhhh.” Murmurs all saying the same thing: I can’t believe this is happening. But it was. Despite an initially cool reserve, Yorke soon got down and dirty, unleashing a sweaty funk that spanned house, minimal techno, dubstep, Afro-beat, and hip-hop. Jaylib bled into Burial. Major Lazer slurred into smooth house. Modeselektor merged with Fela Kuti’s “Zombie,” into krautrock. The lights dimmed and the crowd kept bouncing. A robot remix of M.O.P. and Busta Rhymes’ “Ante Up,” passed the pipe to Madvillain’s “America’s Most Blunted” — Yorke’s notoriously eclectic tastes distilled into an hourlong dance party.
If it were another DJ spinning, it inevitably would’ve been just another impressive performance. But context always counts, and with each transition the intensity continued to ratchet — the dance floor dissolving into a blur of bobbing heads and waving arms. Ditching his original diffidence, the sprightly Yorke began controlling the crowd, setting rubber-limbed moves and fist-pumps to each build and release of the beat. Everyone knew about Yorke’s seraphic wail and preternatural songwriting ability, but few knew that he could DJ this well.
In the background, Flying Lotus and Gaslamp Killer played hype men, keeping the crowd live while alternately smiling and marveling at one of the most acclaimed musicians of the last 20 years wrecking shop at what was once Los Angeles' best kept secret. It was less a coronation than it was a continuation of the dialogue, the ackowledgement that the epicenter of American electronic music currently erupts every Wednesday night in Lincoln Heights.
After all, it was just last week that Odd Future, the most hotly tipped young group in America, did an impromptu and dynamic performance. And last night, Yorke somehow managed to one-up them, with a blistering workout that could’ve detonated any club from L.A. to Latvia. Deftly slipping past the crush of bodies rushing to swarm him on his depature, Yorke disappeared as quickly as he entered. Watching the madness slowly dissipate, the Gaslamp Killer aptly summed the night up: "Wow. Did that really happen? Did that really just happen?"
-- Jeff Weiss
Photo: Thom Yorke, left, and Flying Lotus at Low End Theory. Credit: Lee Shaner at Knocksteady