The Smile at Mission Ballroom, Denver 12/10/22
Words by Adam Perry
Photos by Mikayla Sanford
Radiohead stars Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood are 54 and 51, respectively, but when the pair took the big Mission Ballroom stage in Denver side by side on Saturday night as The Smile with avant-garde drummer Tom Skinner they seemed like kids in a candy store, excitedly playing their first gig in someone’s parents’ garage.
Skinner, 42, also intermittently dabbled in the synthesizers set up next to his kit. He forged a musical relationship with Greenwood while working on the soundtrack to the 2012 Oscar-winning movie The Master, and started The Smile with Greenwood and Yorke last year – releasing a debut album this year.
At the Mission – following a brave instrumental set by talented saxophonist Robert Stillman, who vowed to “open the space, open our hearts” – Yorke and Greenwood traded off playing bass and guitar on progressive, but enticing and sometimes danceable, Smile tunes that seem like an extension of Radiohead workouts like “Bodysnatchers” and “Burn the Witch.” Skinner’s brilliant polyrhythms and flowing jazz-meets-techno feel clearly energized Yorke, in particular, so much at the 3,900-capacity Mission Ballroom that I wondered what heights post-OK Computer Radiohead might’ve reached with such a creative, visionary drummer essentially playing quarterback.
Yorke – white beard, long reddish brown hair and black sport coat – shook around like David Byrne circa Stop Making Sense and made eccentric, pained faces as the trio’s hypnotic alt-rock pulsed. At times, the English rock legend wandered the edge of the Mission stage egging the adoring Denver crowd on with oddball histrionics – like Gollum cheering on a rock audience – that recalled Kurt Cobain’s iconic MTV Live and Loud antics but somehow seemed altogether joyous, connected and endearing rather than sarcastic or insulting.
Though “Good evening, Denver – we’re the Smile” was the bulk of what Yorke said to the crowd, along with a dad joke about fish during a synthesizer malfunction, his joy was tangible and at times overflowing. The Smile’s music, like Radiohead’s, can range from gorgeously weird, pin-drop quiet hymns to frenzied, even clubby indie-rock bangers – if the club were out of a scene from Naked Lunch.
Greenwood, for his part, initially took the stage in a comically oversized sweater and ridiculously baggy black pants, giving off serious Schroeder (or even Linus vibes) that made him look more 15 than 50. Radiohead’s resident wunderkind – the little brother who quickly became second only to Yorke in Radiohead dynamism and importance – played everything from guitar to bass to piano, synthesizer and even harp, tackling it all like his life depended on it, especially when The Smile hit peaks on songs that featured Greenwood’s lawnmower-sounding guitar straight out of Rust Never Sleeps.
From the set opener “The Same,” Yorke’s lyrics were at least a touch more positive and direct than a lot of Radiohead material. “We don’t need to fight,” he sang, “Look towards the light.” The lyrics fit Yorke’s hopeful, ecstatic feel as he danced around, but by the time he sang “I’m gonna count to three / keep this shit away from me” (“Read the Room”) during the four-song encore it was good ‘ol dystopian-nightmare (in a very English way) time.
When Stillman walked on stage to add saxophone to The Smile’s alt-rock hypnosis, David Bowie’s Outside and Blackstar albums came to mind, with the kind of poignant, beautiful darkness Jon Hassell famously added to the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light.
“We’re doing another record, you know?” Yorked blurted out at one moment, to cheers, and as the crowd throbbed while he sang “Don’t bore us / get to the chorus / and open the floodgates” it seemed obvious that both band and audience hope The Smile is around for a very long time.