“We want Coldplay!” someone shouted during a break in Marina and the Diamonds’ lacklustre opening set – to a smattering of applause – at the first of Coldplay’s two Toronto shows at the Air Canada Centre Monday night.
It’s easy to see why. It’s not just because the tinsel-clad Marina emptily twirled her way through a starchy set in front of a crowd that filled up exactly when she left. It’s also because Coldplay has managed to quietly become one of the defining bands of the aughts, an achievement even more impressive because it happened on the strength of just a handful of tracks. Odds are, most of the generation it predominantly defines has likely never heard an entire Coldplay record; their popularity far outstrips the perception of their talent.
The band’s greatest gift is their effortless wide appeal, but they’re also impossible to develop strong feelings about – and they’re well aware. Their latest album is an excellent expression of this; frontman Chris Martin gets away with propagating a contrived thesis that Mylo Xyloto is a complex concept inspired by World War II and old-school graffiti despite it sounding, largely, like any other Coldplay record.
But when Coldplay got onstage, it wasn’t even fair. Their stage show’s preparatory smoke puffs got more whoops than the two openers combined (despite Emeli Sandé’s lovely voice). When, in an exuberant burst of confetti the band rattled off five straight classics, Martin had the crowd eating out of his hand.
This is the evolution of Coldplay: They’ve amassed a deep enough repertoire of hits that they can start shows in a way that would be premature for a lesser band. So when Martin says at the show’s start, “We talked earlier and decided this would be the best concert we’d play in our lives,” you want to believe him, you really do. “But isn’t this Coldplay,” your mind nags, “the world’s blandest best band?”
Indeed, Coldplay has spent so long being perfectly vanilla, serving up flawlessly anesthetized anthems, that when Martin muffed a cue on Speed of Sound and joked, “Don’t put this on YouTube,” it’s hard to shake the thought it might have been put-on imperfection. But you want to believe him, you really do.
And really, all the things that make Coldplay so ambivalence-inciting make them superior live, where it’s near impossible to sound airless and edgeless. Recorded, Coldplay’s synths swoop under Martin’s slurry drawl just so, and the best songs are anthems for anthems’ sake; live, Martin is dynamic, and the audience swells with every crooned “ohh,” and rides the parabola of every lingering “ahh.” Drums crashed and guitars wailed on typically understated tracks; the show only lulled during Martin’s slower, overlong balladry. It works because it sounds like Coldplay set free; it’s what a great live show sounds like.
Of course, this brand of soaring arena rock was U2’s shtick first; this has long been Coldplay’s unfair, inescapable bane. But that can’t change the fact the sold-out crowd pumped their fists through Violet Hill as if it was Cypress Hill on stage. Or that, despite the encore’s inevitability, the crowd spontaneously burst into the melody of Viva La Vida to lure the band out. Or that after the show, strangers took to the “Play Me I’m Yours” piano outside on York Street and sang The Scientist. Or that on the organ’s dying strains on Fix You, the stadium became a cathedral and everyone stretched their hands skyward, shouting the hymn’s every word.
Monday’s performance – not their best, but deeply entertaining nonetheless – showed that being a Coldplay fan is less about the facts and more about belief. And that night, the crowd let itself believe, it really did – because even an atheist would be hard-pressed to say that a church is not a beautiful place to be, once in a while.
Coldplay plays Montreal’s Bell Centre on July 26 and 27.