Christopher O'Riley 7-1-2006 @ Madison-Morgan Cultural Center
On Saturday night I decided to venture well beyond the smoky clubs of Atlanta and take in a show in quaint little Madison, Georgia. On that evening the Madison Chamber Music Festival hosted a performance by Christopher O'Riley and others. As noted previously in this space, O'Riley is a pianist and has in the past couple years risen in prominence due to his affiliation with Public Radio International and his transcriptions of songs by both Radiohead and Elliot Smith. Saturday night found O'Riley performing both more traditional classical fare and a segment of his Radiohead catalog within a century-old schoolhouse in rural Georgia.
The show began with O'Riley playing alongside violinist Rachel Barton, with whom he played a violin sonata by Ravel. O'Riley and Barton handled Ravel's material masterfully, with the second movement ("Blues [Moderato]") particularly gripping. After the Ravel piece, O'Riley and Barton were joined on stage by Jennifer Stumm (viola) and Christopher Rex (cello). They proceeded to play Faure's "Piano Quartet in C Minor Op. 15." While the Ravel piece was a jazz-influenced romp, the Faure composition was in a more traditional classical vein. Both were thoroughly enjoyable, but for me they were simply the warm-up for O'Riley's set of Radiohead material.
After an intermission following the Faure piece, O'Riley took the stage alone and proceeded to play "There There" almost without warning. His set would include some of Radiohead's best-known material as well as rarities and B-sides. The complete setlist:
July 1, 2006
Madison-Morgan Cultural Center
Like Spinning Plates
True Love Waits
Talk Show Host
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
- encore -
*with Christopher Rex on cello
As is probably apparent to Radiohead fans, the set included both the expected and some great surprises. O'Riley was also personable and chatty throughout, occassionally picking up a microphone to discuss the songs, his adoration for Radiohead's music, and his interaction with Radiohead at a recent Madison Square Garden performance.
The unreleased "Lift" was a special early treat. After performing it without introducing the tune, O'Riley asked if anyone in the crowd could name the song -- a lone gentleman rose to name the title and thoroughly impress the performer. O'Riley went on to explain that his transcription is based on performances of the song from the 1997 tour; apparently it saw the light of day only in that year and in a mellower form in 2003. This was the first of many moments when O'Riley demonstrated his expertise in all things Radiohead.
Impressive performances of "Pyramid Song" (with cellist Christopher Rex) and "Talk Show Host" were unexpected as well. O'Riley explained that he had been hesitant to play "Pyramid Song" on piano because doing so allowed little opportunity to mimic Thom Yorke's vocal on the song; however, he and Rex had worked out a means of collaborating on the song recently and did so in Madison. They discussed on stage the on-going controversey over the time signature of the track, but it seems to remain unsettled. "Talk Show Host" was stripped down to its barest elements, with O'Riley explaining his version is highly influenced by the remix found on the soundtrack to Romeo and Juliet (1996).
The remainder of the set was equally impressive. While there is always the danger that a set such as this will become tiresome as the gimmick loses its novelty, O'Riley maintained the attention and admiration of the audience throughout. It should also be noted that a healthy percentage of the audience probably also had little to no familiarity with Radiohead at all -- the average age in the crowd seemed to be well above 50. However, several of these older individuals said after the show that they were now curious enough to check out Radiohead, while one of the younger patrons described the show as "face-melting chamber music." That, I suppose, may be the first time that phrase has ever been uttered.
While the show may have been particularly enjoyable for Radiohead fans excited about seeing the band's work reinterpreted, O'Riley also demonstrates that modern pop and rock can find a home in a classical setting. O'Riley's performance was as a whole fascinating and enjoyable, with his charismatic stage persona and skillful playing a joy to watch. He certainly won over this audience member despite initial concerns, if not skepticism. Catch him if he comes your way.
The New York Times has an interview with Thom Yorke today. They discuss his solo album, Radiohead's lack of a record contract, and the future of Radiohead's new material.