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Wednesday, Aug 6 1997
Sunday, July 27

If a band wants to have an audience in the years ABB (After Buzz Bin), it is important for them to remember upon whose paycheck they dance. And that includes Radiohead.

Let's not even talk about the first hour and a quarter of Radiohead's July 27 show. For our purposes, the last few songs stand as an accurate representation of the whole. The regular set ended with a rousing and adroit invocation of "Fake Plastic Trees," one of the finest cuts from Radiohead's The Bends. When the five-piece rock outfit set their collective mind to it, they can create quite a beautiful racket. Seeing three guitars with distinctive tones play contrapuntal lines in the service of a well-crafted pop song is a wonder to behold. The singer, Thom Yorke, has a falsetto that might make Morrissey weep -- a nimble, sweeping singing style and a poetic lyrical sensibility. Unfortunately, he slurs his words like a barfly, and if you weren't familiar with the lyrics beforehand, you had little hope of picking them up "live" at the Warfield -- a challenge compounded by a bass-heavy mix. Plus, Yorke's range is limited; after just a few songs he had nearly exhausted his melodic repertoire.

The band left the stage to fevered applause, shouting, and whistling. They had yet to play their first big U.S. hit, "Creep," and a sprinkling of audience members began screaming for it. The band returned and proceeded into "Black Star," another excellent song from The Bends. Something was clearly building here, but when the next number turned out to be "The Tourist," a new, plodding tune, all momentum and hope for a graceful and uplifting coda was lost.

Now, using a slow song in an encore isn't a fumble in itself. But considering the consistent disregard Radiohead seemed to have developed for their audience, not playing "Creep" became a major tactical error. "Purple Rain," "Heroin," "Free Bird" -- hell, even "High and Dry" (their only other hit, also unplayed) would have worked here; "The Tourist" did not.

While the latest Radiohead offering, OK Computer, is somewhat monochromatic, it's not a bad album by any means. Good bands should challenge their audiences from time to time, but knowing how much to bring to the stage and how much to leave in the studio is a form of wisdom that Radiohead have not yet acquired. And the importance of giving people what they want is directly proportional to the physical proximity of said people. (They gave you what you wanted by buying your navel-gazing Art, remember?) Not that bands should just trot out any and all of their hits on demand, but a little pandering goes a long way toward fostering audience goodwill.

The next encore came after an absence from the stage so protracted that audience applause shifted from appreciative to almost patient. An acoustic number with just the singer and his trusty old flat-top box, "Thinking About You" (from the first Radiohead album) was a well-needed save. Yorke even conjured up some emotional subtext, an important feature missing from too much of the set. Another opportunity for a performance peak presented itself.

Alas, Radiohead's narcissism got the best of them again, and they ended the evening (after another wait so excruciatingly long that the house lights had begun to come on) with another slow, anticlimactic song from the new album. Their final words to an obviously devoted fan base? A dismissive, "That's all. Go home." Perhaps indifference is a badge of creative purity, but it sounds pretty lame echoing off the walls of a sold-out Warfield.

-- Paul Kimball

En Vogue

After their debut in 1990, En Vogue established themselves to be more than a black female vocal group -- they were a franchise. Their stock soared like the foursome's powerful voices in the early '90s as they staked out rather barren turf. There had been girl groups in the late '80s, but none of them combined the vocal prowess of Dawn Robinson, Cindy Herron, Terry Ellis, and Maxine Jones. No one could rival En Vogue's over-the-top, opaque tastes in fashion, much less those voices. Never mind that all of their independent postures were really a male version of female autonomy (belonging to their Svengalis, Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster). En Vogue's glorious singing and brilliant vehemence made the script their own, and by the middle of the decade they were a jet-set version of riot grrrls.

Then it all stopped. After two multiplatinum recordings, Born to Sing and Funky Divas -- plus Runaway Love, an excellent EP -- the foursome stalled. During the hiatus, some of the members had babies, Ellis tried a solo effort (Southern Woman, which flopped), and a horde of competitors and imitators from Allure to Xscape subleased En Vogue's acreage. After recording a strong return salvo, "Don't Let Go (Love)" (featured on the soundtrack to Set It Off), Robinson -- arguably the most talented of the four -- left to pursue a solo career.

The group reduced to a trio and finished their first full-length disc in five years. Robinson's departure seemed like trouble, but the music on EV3 is a fine progression from the EP. It's varied, but not hodgepodge. Foster and McElroy produce about half of the CD's tracks; the rest are given over to Organized Noize, Babyface, and others. While they still unleash a ferocious vocal power, the trio are as likely to sing or even croon a song, letting the melody impress you rather than their melismas. Instead of huffing and puffing and trying to regain their throne, the ladies have released an assured, self-satisfied collection of songs.

Unfortunately, En Vogue is about more than music. Lots of girls were born to sing; En Vogue was born to work it. Their style used to skitter along the edge of garish, and now they've fallen into that swamp. The cover of the CD portrays the trio smeared with tons of makeup; they look as if they are trying to lighten their skin shades. The Michael Jackson homage is accessorized with glitter in their hair and faux bad taste dresses (Prada imitating Kmart?).


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