Guitarist Ed O'Brien can hardly stop himself from laughing. Tonight is a very welcoming night. Last time he picked up a guitar onstage, he was to face the vast stadium-rock multitudes when Radiohead were on the REM support slot in America a few weeks ago. At the not incredibly rock'n'roll, Wembley-times-a-hundred sized venues, the mosh-pits were situated at the back, ridiculously, way behind the wine-sipping corporate types who'd bought the expensive seats up front. Most of the time, he didn't know whether crowds liked them or not. Tonight, however, he can see the sweat, drown in the howls and gasp at the love-sick eyes of 2,000 people who pogo out of their socks at the joy of seeing Radiohead back. And that's just to the slow depressing numbers. To witness all this dopey, puppy insanity as the guitars billow with melancholic blues and Thom Yorke croons lines like "I wish I was dead"... well, it's hard to keep a straight face.
It's been eight months since the release of The Bends', Radiohead have been absent a hell of a long time, and it's the first chance to show how voraciously they've devoured their songs, or rather, how voraciously the songs have devoured them. So both band and audience are swept up in a feverish gust of happiness. Maybe this is what makes tonight so special, or maybe it's the fact that Radiohead are on particularly focused form for every second of the one-and-a-half hours.
Thom is the band's tension meter. Early on he stands centre stage just nodding, looking as frail as a battered ugly toy who's recently been abandoned by his owner. One beer glass could probably knock him flying. But when he drawls, his voice is snakily confident, as vain as a peacock. As the earth-rupturing riffs to Bones' detonate around him, Jon Greenwood uses his guitar like a bayonet to shove Thom fully out his meditation. And it works, Thom tossing his head as if to shake all the sleepy angst off.
Then Radiohead blissfully open the floodgates on their songs. Which is a good thing because few records this year have been as orgasmically thrilling as 'The Bends'. They are the contenders who make the angst work, the viable, intelligent mainstream option while Britrock makes a meal out of its self-belief.
In part it's because their awkward, outsider stance isn't a pose; they are the real, unfashionable deal. Thom Yorke must have the most gawkiest smile to make a lop-sided appearance on a pop-star's face. He starts biting his nails and his eyes bulge nervously at the start of Vegetable' and he mutters, "I don't know the words". When the epileptic twitches set in and he's shaking around the stage as if 1,000 electric jolts are firing through his body, his loser streak makes it all believable. Yes, it's a performance, but like all good ones, rooted somewhere in reality.
But mostly it's the fact that Radiohead can pile on the petulancy and the sonic wrist-slashing in Just' and Blowout' and turn these raw emotions into something sleek and beautiful. The savage and the feline combine in their songs, winning multiple sophistication Brownie points for the fact that this is all their own work, that they lean on nobody obvious for their influence.
You're left with utter respect for Radiohead. They have internally located their own heart, know how to handle ferocious emotional brinkmanship, and have also determined their own career horizons. If it's a war out there in marathon gig-land, then Radiohead will win every battle.