Coldplay hit the stage running. Without milking the applause, without a "Hello, Crystal Palace", without a wave to the crowd, the rhythm section sets the beat and a countdown clock ticks down to... well, it didn't get all the way down to zero, such was Chris Martin's eagerness to get the show going. Launching straight into Square One, the opening three notes of Fanfare for a Common Man loom large. "We are so big, we're interstellar" it hints, playing on the 2001: A Space Odyssey connection. The inter-song homilies suggest, "But we're common men and we owe this to you, the common man."
There was a series when the reality show Big Brother hit astonishing levels of blandness. Success and survival was based on the ability to be everyman, to be all things to all people by being nothing. Remove all traces of anything that might be offensive and no one has anything against you. Apart from a lack of personality.
And so it is with some of Coldplay's songs, such as What If? and Till Kingdom Come. Other songs lose any subtlety and character in their translation to the stadium. Don't Panic, Yellow, Warning Sign all suffer in this environment, either through ham-fisted arrangement or through the loss of dynamics. In a longish set comprising 17 songs, the limitations of songs like Low are put into harsh relief. Melody lines are short and repetitive, sudden key changes which could be interesting within one song, suddenly sound formulaic when applied to several, emotional falsetto vocals are cloying through repetition.
The frustrating thing is that despite the above, Coldplay at their best, when they're playing stadium rock in a stadium, are an excellent stadium rock band. Clocks receives an extended workout (with the band canny enough to match the tendency of a large crowd not to be able to keep in time when clapping along at the end). The Scientist (apart from a cringeworthy call/response stadium trick by Martin at the end) is a beautiful song, beautifully played, and one in which the simplicity is its strength. White Shadows, a curious hybrid of Prince's When Doves Cry and early U2, works much better here than on record. The penultimate song of the evening, In My Place, sent a shiver up even our sceptical spine.
The crowd, of course, are enraptured all the way through. One Londonist's blandness is a Coldplay fan's accessibility. The success of Coldplay is based on their ability to produce safe, tuneful, non-threatening rock, and the middle-class thirtysomethings and young families in the stadium will testify to that. We genuinely don't think it's a cynical move on the part of the band to aim for this market but we don't have to like it. A few years ago, Radiohead were interviewed on MTV and asked if they had a message for Coldplay, who were then starting to attract attention. The response was a snide one: "Good luck with Kid A." Coldplay have sidestepped that one for now and, seemingly, have neither the will nor the ability to make the leap into experimentation that has served Radiohead well (at least in artistic terms). Keeping it simple, they're happy playing to the masses, like that at Crystal Palace last night. Coldplay put a smile upon their face. At this moment in time, Chris Martin seems content enough to make accessible music enjoyed by many, without delusions of artistic grandeur.
So a fanfare for the common man, this event is. Uncomplicated/simplistic, foot-tapping/plodding, brimming with emotion/overwrought, inclusive/bland. Whichever side of the oblique you stand on, it is hard to deny that Coldplay are a stadium band par excellence. Chris Martin exudes a charisma that fills the cavernous and stark stadium; he keeps the chatter to a minimum, and when he does speak, he seems to speak with genuine humility and gratefulness. When he's so damned likeable, it's hard to begrudge the man, and his band, the success; we just wish that success was based on something more substantial.