It’s easy to take Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood for granted. For three decades, the pair have put out consistently beautiful music as the principal songwriters of Radiohead, challenging listeners with each record on their journey to become the poster boys of sophisticated indie rock. During the pandemic, when the two teamed up with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner to form The Smile, the new project seemed to be more of the same; their 2022 debut A Light for Attracting Attention felt like a logical next step for the artists, complete with the haunting piano ballads and rollicking rock songs they’ve perfected over the years.
Which is exactly why The Smile beckon to be seen live. It’s in this setting that A Light for Attracting Attention comes to life, and it’s how the most ambivalent of listeners might recall why, exactly, Yorke and Greenwood are indie idols: they’re tight, they’re nimble, and they’re dedicated not to fan service, but to putting the sounds in their head to paper (or, rather, speaker) in the most affecting way possible. The trio brought their latest North American run (grab tickets here) to Austin’s ACL Live at the Moody Theater with a 90-minute set that emphasized the music over any and all distractions.
Cinematic album opener “The Same” made for an appropriate starter, with Greenwood pounding out the song’s insistent, ominous keys over Yorke’s calls for societal unity. Moving past the melodrama, the band kicked into the more boisterous “Thin Thing” and “The Opposite,” the stage lights illuminating the band in flashes of red.
In concert, the most important thing about to note about The Smile is that they’re a three-piece. As such, the band have crafted a tightly choreographed dance with their techs in order to make their lush studio album translate to a crowd. Skinner often set the mood on a synthesizer before heading back to his drum kit, while Yorke and Greenwood traded bass and guitar — while also playing piano and keyboards. At the end of each song, the lights would go down, and roadies would quickly rearrange the stage and hand the band new instruments.
At times, this game of musical chairs would change mid-song. In “Speech Bubbles,” an In Rainbows-esque swirl of finger-picked guitar and strings, Greenwood made up for the missing orchestra by playing piano and harp at the same time. Later, he drew a violin bow across his bass so maniacally that its hair came undone. These performances have clearly been practiced, but their measured quality didn’t detract from the set’s intensity. If anything, it reiterated the idea that Yorke et al are serious about music — so much so that they need to get it right each time — which is really an act of fan service in itself.
The Smile have already begun recording the follow-up to A Light for Attracting Attention, and they performed several new songs at the Moody Theater. For the unreleased “Colours Fly,” they enlisted Robert Stillman — who performed a set of ambient jazz prior to the show — to play saxophone, his woodwind drone grounding Yorke and Greenwood’s noodling bass and guitar. “Under Our Pillows” kept the prodigious riffing going until a fizzled-out ending, where samples recreated the sound of a computer system shutting off (a recurring theme any Radiohead fan would delight in).