Atoms for Peace at War Memorial Auditorium, 10/3/13

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When The Spin first heard of Atoms for Peace back in 2010, we thought the lineup had to be some kind of joke — as in, “Radiohead’s frontman, their producer, the bass player from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and two A-list drummers walk into a bar.” Thom Yorke, Nigel Godrich (aka “the guy who Sir Paul likes because he says ‘no’”), Flea and the percussion dream team of Joey Waronker and Mauro Refusco piqued our curiosity with their official debut, Amok, an intricate crazy-quilt of layered textures and skittering dot-dash rhythms, released early this spring and pulled from Spotify this summer. Sounds great on the ol’ earbuds, but how are they going to pull this off live? It isn’t going to be one of those “press play and flail around” things, is it? Thursday night, we cruised past the folks taking selfies in the dramatic lighting of the War Memorial’s venerable columns, and took up our post near the sound booth.

Opener James Holden, internationally renowned as a DJ and electronic producer, appeared first with a drummer and a small rack of old-school analog synthesizer equipment. The pair proceeded to beat the hell out of tunes from Holden’s recent The Inheritors — propulsive, dancefloor-friendly tracks built around arpeggiated synth lines. Some elements of the complex, kaleidoscopic beats and layers of tweaky synth patterns were handled by a computer. However, live drums and the real-time dance Holden did with his gear added an organic element that turned interesting music into an exciting performance as well.

The trend continued as Atoms for Peace took the stage just after 9 p.m. The setup, with massive percussion stations and several keyboard and amplifier nests, reminded us of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. The music, as it turned out, shared more than a few ideas with the godparents of art punk too. The idea of folk music from an imaginary country could have just as easily fueled this show as it did David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

From the first downbeat to the last notes of the second encore, the material was far groovier than much of Radiohead’s catalog, building on trance-inducing beats from Africa and Latin America. As he stalked from one side of the stage to the other, Flea proved his funk chops to be a fitting low-end complement, while Waronker and Refusco operated like two halves of one brain, syncing up on complex rhythms that we felt compelled to dance to, even if all we could do was mimic Yorke’s convulsive shimmy. We’re sure a computer had to be involved somewhere, but it was so well-integrated that it disappeared into the mix — much like Godrich, who played a few songs out front and retreated to his control center.

The set list was peppered with numbers from Yorke’s solo record, The Eraser, and a choice cut from Yorke’s Radiohead past (“Paperbag Writer” from Hail to the Thief). Nevertheless, the set might have felt a little homogenous outside the circle of avid fans — understandable, considering The Eraser was essentially this group’s first record. But in the end, it was a hell of a show from a group of rock stars who proved they still have the talent that got them where they are.

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