New York is abuzz with music this week as the Governor’s Ball and Global Citizen festivals blow through at the same time and bands play warm-up and breakaway gigs. Wednesday’s triumphant Fugees reunion show, where the tristate area legends belatedly celebrated the 25th anniversary of their bombshell 1996 full length The Score alongside a gaggle of horns and backing vocalists at Pier 17, was recorded for the Saturday Global Citizen broadcast. Last night, Coldplay, also in town for Global Citizen, played a rare gig at the hallowed Apollo Theater in Harlem, a far cry from the hundred-thousand-seat stadiums the U.K. quartet visited throughout 2016 and 2017, touring behind 2015’s A Head Full of Dreams. There hasn’t been a full-fledged Coldplay tour since then; the band played a handful of dates around 2019’s restless but rewarding double album Everyday Life but neglected to plot the typical itinerary of live shows in the interest of figuring out a more ethical and environmentally conscious approach to touring. (“We’re taking time over the next year or two to work out how our tour can not only be sustainable but how can it be actively beneficial,” lead singer Chris Martin told BBC News in advance of the last album’s release.) It was a prescient gesture, putting the greater public good ahead of the enervating euphoria of a shared concert experience. Since then, we’ve all had to pause and reflect on ways to make live shows run safer and smoother, being mired in a lengthy global pandemic that has turned closed, crowded rooms into breeding grounds for deadly, contagious illness.
This year — as Coldplay reconvenes to promote October’s Music of the Spheres, where Swedish pop-hitmakers Max Martin and Oscar Holter push the bubbly EDM aesthetics that powered 2011’s Mylo Xyloto back to the fore — we’ve gotten a look at a band rethinking its live show in real time. At BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend in May, the band brought a breathtaking light show to Whitby Abbey, a medieval monastery, and revealed an impressive pyrotechnical display at Worthy Farm in Somerset, the site, in normal times, of the Glastonbury Festival. Shorter shows over the summer at City Winery and the iHeartRadio Music Festival brought audiences back and unveiled a new set that attempts to balance Chris Martin’s era as one of our finest piano-pop balladeers with the Day-Glo and dance tunes he favored later in the 2010s. At the Apollo, the band juggled hits from both ends of its creative spectrum, with songs from the new album bridging the gap. Not quite a festival set and not quite a radio promo (though the show was broadcast by Sirius XM and Pandora as part of their Small Stage series), the performance was as loose and intimate as it gets for an arena juggernaut.
There haven’t been many opportunities to see how the new songs live with the older ones or to craft a setlist that covers the many moods in this band’s back catalogue. In one particularly revealing segment, Martin tripped up a bit trying to pivot out of the snaking, profane insouciance of the new rocker “People of the Pride” into the cheery, jangly funk of A Head Full of Dreams’s “Adventure of a Lifetime” and thanked guitarist Jonny Buckland for flubbing the latter song’s opening riff to give the front man a second to breathe. Later, when 84-year-old writer and professor Coleman Barks was invited up to read selections from the Persian poet Rumi (as he did on “Kaleidoscope” from Head Full of Dreams), he announced he’d missed rehearsal and appeared to receive stage directions in whispers from the singer.
The Coldplay classics feel cozy as a favorite pair of sweatpants or house shoes, loving and unchanging. “Fix You” hits hard as a singalong in a time of loss. During A Rush of Blood to the Head’s “The Scientist,” couples in the crowd held each other tightly. A solo acoustic rendition of “Yellow” from 2000’s Parachutes offered a reminder of where this band came from; running through Spheres’s sleek, funky BTS team-up “My Universe” provided insight into where it is headed. During “Viva La Vida,” Martin saluted the history of the room with an awkward portion of James Brown’s “I Feel Good”; Mylo’s “Paradise” closed with lyrics from Ginuwine’s “Pony.” Singing alongside Amber and Paris Strother, the R&B duo King, on the Spheres highlight “Human Heart,” Martin revisited the taste for gospel revealed in Everyday Life’s “BrokEn.”
This band is slippery and capable, both an airtight rock unit and a restless pop act. The singer has a peculiar, delightful, self-effacing energy that smoothed the night’s twists. Chris Martin’s stage presence is perched somewhere between a spirited high-school music teacher and an aerobics instructor; his fashion sense is psychedelic in the tie-dye athleisure sense. Both buff and somehow a bit lanky, playful until he snatches the beating heart from your chest, Coldplay’s lead singer is the perfect vessel for songs like “Clocks” that pull you in as long as you allow yourself to surrender to the sentimental sincerity of it all. He undercuts this with humor. After “My Universe,” Martin announced there would be two more songs, the upbeat Dreams single “A Sky Full of Stars,” and the ten-minute Spheres closer “Coloratura,” offering audience members a shot at slipping out early if they “think our new stuff is shit.” It’s a grab bag, but far from flushable.