The Smile’s first emergence was spectacular. A surprise headline performance during 2021’s Glastonbury’s ‘Live At Worthy Farm’ livestream spotlighted Radiohead sensations Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood joined by Tom Skinner of Sons Of Kemet playing eight unidentified tunes in a crammed cowshed with no explanation other than a cheeky riddle. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are called ‘The Smile’,” Yorke said. “Not the smile as in ‘ahh!’, more ‘The Smile’ as in, the guy who lies to you every day.”
More than a year and one album later, the trio takes the stage at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre, with the audience welcoming them with a whopping, thirty-second laudatory applause. This is a supergroup, after all, and a happy aberration in the greater Radiohead side-project catalogue, namely in the rare pairing of Yorke and Greenwood together. While Yorke’s solo albums are centralized by an electronic, dystopian discordance, Greenwood’s establish him as the go-to Hollywood composer. Add jazz virtuoso Skinner in the mix, and you suddenly have three polymaths standing on the same stage. Against the red drapery, rococo architecture, and through the dazzling primary strobed lighting, the trio sets off to perform an over 100-minute-long musical extravaganza.
At the upright piano, Yorke fingers through opener ‘Pana-Vision’ accompanied by Skinner’s steadfast drumming and Greenwood’s precise, lattice fingerpicking. “We’re The Smile, nice to meet you,” Yorke says. ”We made one record, and that’s why we’re here.”
With only three key players, The Smile’s LP ‘A Light For Attracting Attention’ is, at its core, a stripped-down Radiohead Fantasma. With a mid-tempo kick-off, Yorke seizes the crowd with ‘Thin Thing’ and ‘The Opposite’ as both he and Greenwood switch between ‘The Bends’ like raucous guitar and swaggering bass, harkening back ever so slightly to their post-punk roots. Yet, Skinner imbues the tracks with unusual time signatures, and a motorik-like funk as his polyrhythmic drumming on ‘The Hairdryer’ compels Yorke to pause his vaporous falsetto to dance at the front of the stage, shaking his (fifty-four-year-old) bum saucily. The crowd, made up of mostly millennials and gen Xers, squeals in delight, quickly reaching for their phones to capture the frontman’s antics.
While the former tracks are relatively tried-and-true art rock tunes, with three musical innovators front and centre, the soundscapes shift song after song, harnessing classic Radiohead dynamism and unique texture with varied instrumentation. ‘Free In The Knowledge’ finds Greenwood moving from piano to a bowed bass guitar with Yorke on acoustic, wistfully singing: “Turns out we’re in this together.”
Also woven between ‘A Light For Attracting Attentions’’s “old songs”, as Yorke jokes are a collection of new tunes: ‘Colours Fly’, ‘Read The Room’, ‘Just Eyes And Mouth’, and ‘Bending Hectic’ all ascribing to the post-punk infused jazz mentality, often finding Yorke pressing a mirage of synths while in the next moment brandishing a heavy feedback strat solo.
Lest we forget, ‘A Light For Attracting Attention’ is a rather damning album with political slights hitting out at authoritarians and a socially disconnected milieu. “Don’t you remember when we used to get together?” asks Yorke midway through the set. “Remember when we thought we were all the same?” Skinner takes the synth this time on meditative ‘The Same’ with a spotlight on Yorke’s quaking vibrato, begging “please, we all want the same,” over and over to a silent, attentive crowd.
For a project born in isolation, the trio’s live performance feels like a triumph, especially as artists’ touring futures were so recently bleak, and momentarily non-existent. A post-isolation side-effect can result in blind joy and earnest sentimentalism — and last night, it was tangible on stage at Kings Theatre. “I don’t want to be corny,” Yorke prefaces before new track ‘People In Balconies’. “But, today, this one’s for you guys. This one is for New York.”
“I have some sparkles to create the right effect”, sings Yorke on the tender song, reminiscent of OK Computers’ ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’. “They’re all smiling so I guess I’ll stay.” And stay he does, as the show closes with not one, but two encores ending with Yorke’s own ‘Pulled Apart By Horses’. Much like their very first show, The Smile emerges at Kings Theatre spectacularly.
The Smile played:
‘Free In The Knowledge’
‘Waving A White Flag’
‘We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Bring’
‘Read The Room’
‘Skirting On The Surface’
‘Just Eyes and Mouth’
‘People In Balconies’
‘You Will Never Work In Television Again’
‘Open The Floodgates’
‘Pulled Apart By Horses (Thom Yorke Cover)’