Bonnaroo has had many great headliners over its past seven years of existence. Wilco, Kings of Leon, Nine Inch Nails, and Phish have all played astounding sets at the festival and helped to create its great reputation as a must-see event. However, theres one group thats widely regarded to have had the best Bonnaroo performance overall: Radiohead.
In early 2005, Radiohead had begun working on what would eventually become 2007s In Rainbows. However, after a year of recording, they hadnt made much progress, partly due to their stop in momentum after the tour for Hail to the Thief. The record contract with EMI was up, and the band didnt want to sign with any business in what they saw as a dying industry. So with no album deadline and their first break in years, Radiohead was stuck in the mud. In order to get the machine working again, the band went on tour in mid 2006. While they mostly played smaller club and theaters, they also headlined a few festivals. It was during this tour that Radiohead headlined Bonnaroo 2006.
The Bonnaroo set can basically be seen as the ultimate Radiohead show. Like their more energetic songs? The Bends and Myxomatosis are there for you. Want to relive the days of their electronic era? Everything In Its Right Place and Idioteque are on the setlist. Even those casual fans out there would be happy with Fake Plastic Trees, Karma Police, and Paranoid Android. Theres something for almost everyone (sorry, Pablo Honey fans, thats the only album missing here).
Not only is the show legendary for its large variety even by Radioheads standards, its also given a high regard for its sheer performance length. While many headlining acts play as long as they would at a normal concert, Radiohead stretched their usual 20-song set to an impressive 28 songs. The eight-song encore almost feels like it could pass for a concert itself.
The band used their mini-tour not only to regain momentum for future studio work, but also as a chance to try out songs on the road. In fact, all six unreleased songs played at Bonnaroo would later make it onto In Rainbows. After opening the set with There There and 2+2=5, Radiohead wasted no time in showing off their new material. The awesomely offbeat rhythm of 15 Step was played back-to-back with the multi-layered guitar touches of Weird Fishes/Arpeggi as the strangely angled video screens focused on each band member. These two numbers offer a cool insight into their evolution when compared with the more complete album versions.
However, Videotape is an example of an earlier version surpassing the finalized track. On the record, the song is a mainly piano-centered piece with a drum loop that comes in towards the end as Thom Yorke sings about using antique technology to say goodbye to his loved ones. The Bonnaroo version is much more complex, though. Jonny Greenwood supplies a scratch guitar against Yorkes piano that gradually grows louder until the song explodes for the final verse and subsequent ending. The song that ended up on In Rainbows takes more of a bare bones approach than what was done at the festival.
When all was said and done, the bands set felt like an instant classic. It was quintessential Radiohead in every way. They gave the audience what they wanted, surprised them with what they werent expecting, and helped elevate Bonnaroos already strong status as a great festival. The show was filmed for a possible DVD in the future, though nothings been heard about that for a while. Hopefully, the band will decide to break their drought of live concert releases in order to share what many feel is one of the greatest performances by one of the worlds greatest bands.