Coldplay Bashes Mariah Carey

Coldplay Madison Square Garden September 6, 2005

Coldplay has the big epic stately tasteful rock band thing down: reassuringly gawky self-effacing frontman, sweepingly vague and heartfelt lyrics, melodies big enough to reverberate around in a cavernous venue like Madison Square Garden without losing much of their soothing punch. People pretended to be surprised a little while ago when Jay-Z said that he liked Coldplay, but chances are Jay sees the same thing in Coldplay as me and Justin Timberlake and the guy standing behind me at last night's show doing the worst white man's overbite I've ever seen: they make big mushy pretty songs that sound wonderful on too-expensive stereo equipment after a long day writing reviews or selling used cars or figuring out how to market the Young Gunz. It's easy to fault a band for keeping us comfortable and lulling us into a nice purring coma, but that doesn't make Coldplay bullshit. If anything, Coldplay is a sort of model for rock music for grown-ups. They write gorgeous, graceful songs that don't lose any beauty or grace when they're played between Rob Thomas and Bowling for Soup on adult-pop radio. They make use of the insanely great production values at their disposal, usually without fetishizing their analog origins (more on that later). They speak up on political causes without haranguing. They enjoy celebrity and mass adulation in a vaguely bemused way, not reveling in it but also not bitching about paparazzi. They're the only rock band that was allowed to play the VMAs without wearing eyeliner, and if it weren't for their mostly-boring new album and the way they focus everyone's attention on their frontman to the complete exclusion of the other three guys in the band, they would be pretty close to great. Coldplay was one of a huge gaggle of post-Radiohead sooth-rock bands to emerge from England at the beginning of the decade, and there are probably a million reasons why they broke through in America while Travis and Turin Brakes and whoever else didn't. But I'll submit just one: they're good, and those other bands aren't.

Madison Square Garden was sold out last night, filled with people who probably don't ordinarily go to see rock bands, who videotape the whole show on their cell phones and consider buying $35 T-shirts and maybe even leave before the encores because they don't realize that there are going to be encores. But they knew every word to these songs, and they screamed when the lights went down, and they played right along with every goofy little bit of call-and-response that Chris Martin thought up. An audience like this might not be as animated as the last crowd I saw at Madison Square Garden, but it was still a great crowd to be a part of, the sort of happy mass that turns a rock show into an outsize spectacle, thrilled to be there way more than, say, the crowd at the Wilderness show I saw a little while ago.

And the band Martin gave the crowd exactly what it wanted and expected: kneeling and singing with arms outstretched, running up the center aisle, even doing the spinny-lantern thing from the "Fix You" video. The band sounded crisp and overwhelming, even without the sweetening synths and string sections from their records, making the songs as grand as they needed to be. Other than the obligatory "Yellow," they completely avoided first-album material; those songs, after are, are too thin and spindly and Jeff Buckleyish for a venue as big as the Garden. The tracks from their boring new album got nowhere near the response of stuff from A Rush of Blood to the Head, but even those new songs had a certain open majesty, and it made for a touching moment when Martin dedicated "Kingdom Come" to Johnny Cash, for whom, according to Martin, the song was written. (They also covered "Ring of Fire," which was a bad idea.) Martin even got a big cheer doing the U2 topical-lyric-change thing on "Politik," singing, "Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens / Spread your love to New Orleans."

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The only really bad obnoxious of the show came during Martin's false-humility stage-patter bits. It was bad enough when he said self-effacing trash about only having two hits (a blatant lie), but he insufferably thanked the crowd for paying attention to the band even though they didn't have any dancers or explosions, even though "we have to rely on our hands and feet." I don't know if this was a cheap crowd-pandering move or if Martin really thinks his music is more genuine than Mariah Carey's or Nelly's or whoever's just because he knows how to play guitar. Coldplay's best singles ("Clocks" especially) are great in part because they absorb the swooping overblown textures of dance music without locking into the beat, adding all these lovely little understated electronic flourishes to songs that were already pretty gorgeous. So it's not like they're Mississippi Fred McDowell or anything, and Martin shouldn't try to fool himself or anyone else that they are. Besides, the success of Coldplay's show had a lot to do with their lighting crew, who deserve an Oscar or something. The light show was just breathtaking, giving each song its own look: falling bars of color on a screen behind them on "Speed of Sound," blinding lights facing the audience on "In My Place," sci-fi planetarium starscapes on "The Scientist." During "Yellow," someone released giant yellow beach balls into the crowd. I love that stuff.

Voice review: James Hunter on Coldplay's X&Y

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