Coldplay Rock the Balls at the Phone Booth

One strives to avoid the wholly predictable, but sometimes you just can’t stave off the obvious lede that fate fairly dangles above your head:

Coldplay grow some balls.

Coldplay deliver ballsy performance.

Coldplay counter critics with raw ballin.’

Viva la Balls, or Death and All His Balls.

(Okay, so what was your brilliant idea, Mr. Christgau? Coldplay Go Globe-al? Weak.)

Retarded puns unretracted, Coldplay’s sold-out show at the Phone Booth last night was all about the balls — specifically, the half-dozen vaguely ominous, economy-car-sized white orbs that descended from the ceiling like Rover, the high-tech balloon-as-border-fence from the trippy 60s British TV show The Prisoner (stick with me, the most of you who have no fucking clue what I’m talking about) and displayed projected video around all 360 degrees of their surfaces. The balls were definitely the newest, most impressive props in a choreographed-down-to-the-second 85-minute performance. No question, the show was state-of-the-art — “the art,” of course, being that of high-tech stage production rather than songwriting, which has never been Coldplay’s long suit, exactly. Indeed, the Phone Booth show had originally been scheduled for a month earlier, and had to be postponed along with the first segment of the tour due to “production delays” — presumably those balls, since every other high-tech trick in the show, while impressive, was familiar from other visually-inventive tours, particularly those of — all togther now, friends — U2, the band Coldplay is most frequently accused of ripping off.

One thing we can say for sure is that while seeing Coldplay perform live — as with any artist that understands intuitively how to connect with an audience in performance — can only increase your estimation of the band’s merit, it ain’t gonna dissuade anybody who thinks of them as merely the best U2 copyists to come along since Radiohead’s OK Computer-era evolution into something much more unique. (If Coldplay were even the least bit worried about the comparison, they wouldn’t have hired Brian Eno, midwife to all of U2’s most successful albums, to produce their latest, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends — winner of this year’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness award for album title that makes you most want to issue a wedgie to the clown who came up with it.) But the likeness is as palpable onstage as it is on record. Chris Martin, Coldplay’s ebullient, charismatic frontman, comes off as a taller, less garrulous Bono, from his loose-limbed, ecstatically reclined dancing to the way he seems surprised and delighted at but also completely at ease with having thousands of people gape at him. He’s a natural showman.

Coldplay’s set last night went heavy on Viva la Vida material, perfomring the album almost in its entirety, along with half of 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head and a lesser sampling from their first and third albums. They certainly played every Coldplay song I needed to hear, and still managed to wrap up in 85 minutes — not exactly a marathon, especially considering that the top ticket price was $97.50. The show was expertly paced, however. The band performed behind a mesh curtain for the opening instrumental wash of “Life in Technicolor,” then slammed into first single “Violet Hill” as the curtain went up. A giant backdrop of the 1830 Eugene Delacroix painting that forms Vida‘s cover was suspended unnecessarily behind the band. Song 3, “Clocks” — the theme that launched a thousand movie trailers circa 2003-4 — brought the laser cannon barrage, and gave us our first glimpse of the video-testes in action.

Actually, ’twere only a single vidi-ball activated for this number, hung dead center of the arena. As the set continued, five more spheres would float down from black chutes in the rafters — the thought of sitting beneath a giant hen was difficult to avoid. Had all the vidi-balls been pressed into service initially, they could have eliminated the unnecessary and distracting video screen stage backdrop that replaced the album cover with the now-obligatory high-contrast black-and-white video footage of the band performing, which was probably much appreciated by the occupants of the 400-level sets but, closer in, competed distractingly with the the band itself. The video balls were a lot cooler during “Clocks,” when they were a replacement for, rather than a supplement to, traditional big-screen video. The removal of the screen would have allowed CP to sell the seats behind the stage, too.

The mid-floor B-stage was another idea Coldplay recycled to great effect (from U2, yes; at least that’s who Keith Richards says the Rolling Stones stole the idea from) performing a rousing “Chinese Sleep Chant.” Pretty funny title for the hardest-rocking song on the album. Accompanied by more laser fire, it sounded echo-y and ethereal and great, even if was so heavily processed it was impossible to tell if any of it was actually being performed live. Next up was a downbeat, whammy-bar heavy number. For a hopeful second, I thought Coldplay were going to show some Eno-love by covering “Life During Wartime” or something else from those great Talking Heads albums that Eno produced back when I was still in diapers, but no such luck — it was a rearranged, sinister “God Put a Smile on My Face.”

A few minutes later, Chris Martin cut whatever watery piano ballad he was playing abruptly off, saying “That’s enough of that” before slamming into “Yellow,” the dumb-but-difficult-to-resist Y2K anthem that put the world on notice that even with their first album, Coldplay had designs on a hockey rink near you. The sepia-color-wash that accompanied the tune sort of made me think of what Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog would have to say about the show. Even so, events took a distinct upward turn when Martin, after botching an acapella coda to the tune apologized, saying, “Some days I don’t know whether I’m trying to be Johnny Cash or Barry Gibb. I hope in 10 years’ time to have the voice of Johnny Cash and the hair of Barry Gibb.” Yo, Chris: We’ll handle the snarky quips about your voice if you don’t mind, or even if you do. But that was a pretty good one.

After a pounding “Lost!”, the four Coldplay-ers lept from the stage and ran across the floor through the audience, slapping hands while enveloped in beefy security guys. (I know you want to ask, and, yes, I have in fact seen U2 do this, too.) But then they did something I’ve never seen anybody do: They performed a pair of tunes, not quite in the nosebleeds, but from some random seats in the 200 level of the arena almost directly opposite the stage.

“So this is what we’re like up-close,” Martin told the lucky occupants of that section. “Not that impressive, right?” His affable banter broke sharply from Bonodom when he said, “I’m going to stop talking because I’m starting to bore myself.” Then came an acoustic take of “The Scientist, “ followed by “The Goldrush / Death Will Never Conquer,” sung by drummer Will Champion, replete with some comments from Martin about the ineptitude of his own harmonica-playing. Though truth be told, he blows harp at least as skilfully as . . . yeah, why don’t we drop that now.

A video-ball clip of Bill O’Reilly dissing Chris Martin gave way to a sort of geopolitical mash up video while the band made their way back to the main stage to bash out a driving “Politik.” The closing sequence of “Lovers in Japan,’ “Death to All His Friends,” and “The Escapist” was accompanied by a storm of glow-in-the-dark paper butterflies, blown aloft my confetti cannons. Perhaps it wasn’t the vidi-testes, but rather the real buttterflies — feral, carnivorous, ravenous — used in early dress rehearsals, that were to blame for the “production delays.” “Oh, God! Not the eyes!” screamed people all around us as the winged beasties flew their hellish, day-glo sorties. Okay, so I made most of that up, but the paper butterflies were there, and people were screaming, albeit in fits of apparent euphoria.

I did hear a few people grumbling on their way out about the sub-90-minutes performance time. Coldplay have shows booked through the end of the year. Then, presumably, they’ll have to find something to do with the vidi-balls they spent so much cash on. I have a few ideas:

1) Both feature-film and TV remakes of The Prisoner are in the works; the TV version is already in production with Jim “Jesus of Nazareth” Caviezal and Sir Ian “Magneto” McKellen in the two leading roles. The 60s version was pretty successful at making viewers afraid of a growling while balloon, but a growling white balloon that showed its victims live video of Coldplay before devouring them would be both topical and scary.

2) Rumor has it this other band will be touring again next year, one with a reputation for eye-popping live shows, chiming E-chord-driven anthems, and collaborations with Brian Eno. Coldplay has been stealing their sound and their stage tricks for close to a decade now; perhaps that other band would be willing at this point to return the favor. Or at least to give them a decent price for a half-dozen gently used vidi-balls.

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