Live Review

The Smile, Hammersmith Apollo, London: captivating with a meaty, masterful arrival

10th March 2024

Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood’s side project is nipping at the heels of their day job.

Across two albums, released in quick succession barely 18 months apart, The Smile’s MO has seemed to be as a place for its main protagonists - Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood - to do their thing free from the pressures that come with fronting one of the world’s most revered bands. Where some side projects operate as spaces for all the flights of fancy that could never align with the day job, The Smile is more like Radiohead’s instinctive, cheekier younger sibling; the two bands are very audibly related but, as tonight’s Hammersmith Apollo show underlines, there’s a sense of freedom and looseness here that proves fertile ground away from their most famous outlet.

Which is not to say that this tour, in support of January’s ‘Wall of Eyes’, is exactly free of expectation. From the moment the band, completed by drummer Tom Skinner and guest saxophonist Robert Stillman, step on stage 10 minutes late, there’s a tangible sense of gravitas in the room. There’s no chatter from the crowd, no mingling towards the bar; attempts to squeeze out to the toilet are greeted like a personal affront on those being asked to minutely move. But for all the pin-drop concentration of the crowd in front of him, Yorke looks like he’s having genuine fun, leading the group through a setlist that reaches far into cross-genre experimentation but also, often, just hits direct and hard.

With four CCTV-like screens lined up above a bombardment of intensity-amping LEDs, each is trained on an area of the stage as Yorke and Greenwood move between guitars, bass, pianos and synths. ‘Wall of Eyes’’ title track opens the set with bare-bones enveloping intimacy, the singer’s strange croon immediate and inimitable, while ‘A Hairdryer’ utilises Skinner’s skittish jazz percussion to amp up the lyrical paranoia.

The Smile, Hammersmith Apollo, London The Smile, Hammersmith Apollo, London The Smile, Hammersmith Apollo, London

Stillman’s sax begins unreleased new song ‘Instant Psalm’ with a brightness that unfolds into a fulsome, mid-tempo meditation. Early singles ‘The Smoke’ and ‘You Will Never Work In Television Again’ are delivered back-to-back, the former a creeping, insidious thing; the latter, a gnarly, sneering guitar assault. A highlight comes in the tender pianos of ‘Friend of a Friend’ - complete with Yorke-instigated crowd sing-along, while the epic, eight-minute ‘Bending Hectic’ closes the main body of the set with a searing crescendo.

Though there’s no particular stage chat, the odd few words aside, he and Greenwood seem enlivened by the whole operation. In comparison to festival headlines and arenas, these relatively mid-sized rooms, you imagine, must feel like a chance to cut loose and have fun. By all metrics, they succeed on both counts.

Tags: The Smile, Reviews, Live Reviews

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