Review: The Smile Live in Montreal

The Smile live in Montreal review by Erin MacLeod
The Smile in Montreal photo by Stewart Wiseman

“We only have one album, but you must like us,” said Thom Yorke to the sold-out crowd in Montreal last night, “because you bought a ticket.” True – but given overheard conversation and the prevalence of Radiohead t-shirts, the excitement of seeing arena musicians in a century-old, just over 2000-capacity theatre was palpable. For my part, I was enthusiastic about hearing from the excellent A Light for Attracting Attention, an album that vacillates between the brooding electronics of “Waving a White Flag”, the textured and noisy “A Hairdryer” and the laid back groove of “The Smoke”.

When I was an intern way back in 2000, the magazine I worked for gave us the opportunity to hear Kid A in full, ages before it was released. At the time, my ears weren’t particularly attuned to Radiohead and my aversion to “Creep” crept into my overall attitude about the band and took residence in my head. This led to perhaps not an outright avoidance, but a general lack of attention to the band. My focus was elsewhere. Through repeated pandemic listening of the entire darned catalogue, I did, however, realize the error of my ways, but my point here is that my relationship with Radiohead, though positive, is short. Which, in my humble opinion, makes me an excellent candidate for a date with The Smile.

Yes, I’m also aware of Yorke’s countless collaborations and solo work as well as Radiohead bandmate Johnny Greenwood’s prolific number of film scores, but the depth of this talent is combined with drummer Tom Skinner, of the recently defunct jazz outfit Sons of Kemet (their debut 2013 album Burn is brilliant). Reviews of the album and recent shows lean into understandably obvious comparisons, but the reality is that this is a band made up of legendary musicians. And here’s the thing: I’m not tied to any particular expectations of what this 3-person band could, or should, sound like. What I can tell you is that they are damn good.

The opening act, multi-instrumentalist Robert Stillman, provided some experimental atmospheric crackle, layering saxophone, keys and other bits of melody atop a bed of voice, drone and soundscape. He then reappeared to support The Smile on a number of songs during their over 90 minute set, which kicked off with “The Same”, a throbbing track (paired with equally throbbing lighting) that makes good use of Yorke’s plaintive voice, pleading that “we all want the same”.

This was followed up with “Thin Thing”, which also showcased Yorke’s haunting tone, a technique that makes sparse, simple lyrics sound incredibly profound as soon as they shift into his trademark falsetto. A show that walks through the entirety of an album is a unique opportunity to consider the project as a whole. Each track held the audience’s rapt attention, sometimes clapping, other times desperate to capture bits and pieces of the show on cellphones. In particular, the crowd cheered on every move Yorke made: slight dance moves and head nods were met with cheers.

During the concert the band made use of a range of instruments; throughout the show Greenwood and Yorke swapped bass and guitar duties, with Skinner’s syncopated yet driving rhythms propelling each song forward and keeping everything on course. Synths and an upright piano were part of the mix, and on “Free In The Knowledge” Greenwood started on piano and ended with a flourish, using a bow on his bass guitar.

The band’s rich, thick sound was equally excellent on big, room filling tracks like “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings”, with its title-repeating chorus as well as the spooky piano in “Pana-vision”, accompanied those echoey, floating – yet reliable – vocals. It is the kind of song that works equally well on headphones while out for a walk on a chilly evening.

Added to the mix were four new songs – each were welcomed by the audience, who surely would like a second album, and soon. After the caustic roar of “You Will Never Work in Television Again”, a song that angrily takes aim at the perversions of politicians, the band walked off, but was back in a matter of moments thanks to the enthusiastic applause of an appreciative audience. The encore left everyone wanting more, offering up the last remaining album track: “Open the Floodgates”, a new song, “Read the Room”, and “FeelingPulledApartByHorses”, a Yorke solo track that has become a standard ending for The Smile on this tour.

From start to finish, The Smile demonstrated an ability to create some of the moodiest music to receive whistles and woohoos (and, yes, smiles), but they were certainly well deserved.

Words by Erin MacLeod

Order tickets for The Smile HERE


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