First Night: Radiohead, 93 Feet East, London

Intimate, low-key return is well worth the wait
  • @timwalker

First they gave an album away for free, now they're doing the same with their gigs. Yesterday, Radiohead caused quite a stir when they announced on their website that they would be playing a low-key, first-come, first-served gig at Rough Trade East record store, just off London's Brick Lane.

Not even the store's staff were guaranteed a ticket to last night's performance, the most intimate the band have played in years. But those not among the privileged 200, who queued in the cold all day to see the band in person, could still enjoy the gig from the comfort of their sofas, it being the band's third live webcast since the release of their latest album, In Rainbows. Radiohead are a band who know how to look after their fans.

The band's followers are a civilised, sophisticated bunch. One whiled away the hours in the queue with his head buried in psychologist Oliver James's latest book. Another was furiously highlighting her copy of Heidegger's Being and Time. One 18-year-old skipped school to attend, after his mother called him to let him know the gig was happening.

The staff, happy to treat prospective gig-goers like adults, allowed them to peel off now and then for toilet breaks, or to go into the Rough Trade store, where they found Thom Yorke browsing through records and chatting happily to anyone brave enough to approach him.

Yet as the media circus descended and it became clear that many of the vast crowd who'd turned up would not make it in to see the show, the police (almost like a familiar Radiohead lyric...) arrived to spoil the party. Eventually the gig was forced to move down Brick Lane to a second venue, the cosy 93 Feet East.

Yet 12 hours of foot-stamping, teeth-chattering and sound-checking were finally, inevitably worthwhile: the gig – a run through of In Rainbows followed by an encore of classics – was a triumph. From the first bars of "15 Step" it's clear that the oft-incomprehensible mumbles and howls of Kid A and Amnesiac are gone – Yorke's voice is back, and stronger than ever, most spectacularly in the searing falsetto of "Nude".

"Bodysnatcher", like much of the LP, is driven by a throbbing bassline and Selway's ever-expressive drumming. Live, In Rainbows comes off as at least half a dance record, from "Weird Fishes", which skitters along like a perfectly skimmed stone, to "Reckoner", which has one of 2007's most satisfying crescendos. "All I Need", the album's centrepiece, builds to a thrilling climax as Johnny Greenwood tinkles away at a xylophone.

The decision to release In Rainbows online and without the assistance of a record label was, if the band themselves are to be believed, a last-minute one. Yet it has catapulted them straight back into the public consciousness just at the moment it appeared their star might be fading. Last night's show was an open dress rehearsal for this summer's tour. Beg, borrow or steal to be there.