A Star Named Chris 

Coldplay at the Fillmore inspires crowd hysteria, and grudging praise from a jaded critic.

A fleeting but nonetheless joyous annual Bay Area tradition has, for 2005, sadly ended: Please bid a fond adieu to Coachella Runoff Season. Each spring, the relentlessly hip two-day desert hoedown draws the cream of the modern rock crop to Southern California -- "You go down to the desert last weekend?" a metropolitan dude just asked me, and at first I thought he was making some sort of drug reference -- and for those of us unwilling to brave the pulsating crowds and pulverizing heat, a great deal of Coachella's lineup does us the courtesy of scheduling a coupla SF dates while they're in the neighborhood.

Thus, during the last two weeks, we have hosted the honorable likes of Nine Inch Nails, Gang of Four, Weezer, New Order, Bright Eyes, Wolf Eyes, Snow Patrol, Mercury Rev, the Chemical Brothers and, climactically, Coldplay. Of course, being insanely knowledgeable and cosmopolitan cats and kitties, we obviously prefer obscure/unknown bands playing supersecret shows at obscure/unknown-to-cops warehouse venues. But for now -- or, sadly, for then -- there is no shame whatsoever in gettin' mainstream while the gettin's good.

And it rarely gets gooder than Coldplay.

Coldplay at the Fillmore, even. Wednesday night's hootenanny offered the classic big band/smallish venue scenario that turns everyone a bit gleefully chowderheaded -- a 27-year-old unattached pregnant lady with a black eye promising romantic interaction and/or crystal meth in exchange for a ticket, that sort of thing. Any band inspiring such hysteria deserves grudging praise, and indeed, the UK quartet's style of piano-heavy U2-style megaballadry sets off emotional atomic bombs, whereas Bono now spends all his time dismantling them.

Putting "The Scientist" on a mix tape guarantees instant fornication. Write that on your hand now.

So the Fillmore is packed, abuzz, charged with Big Event energy. For many of our fellow patrons, this might be their sole rock concert of 2005. They are not exactly regulars, in any event. How do we know this? They cheer loudly when the crew tests the lights, because they think that means the band's coming out. Ah, doofuses. But the rush of blood to the crowd's collective head when the band does saunter out -- the passionate cheers, the pandemonium -- is stirring indeed, and the dudes launch into "Square One," off the band's imminent junior effort X&Y, and it's aspiring-toward-classic Coldplay: the broad strokes of Britpop and American arena rock, big and booming and simple and hummable, as sprawling and endless as the nighttime desert sky, and yet as intimate as a night with your roommates snuggled close on the couch watching Friends. You like this song immediately -- it does not rock, per se, but it produces Rock-like feelings of empowerment and dudeliness.

A fine band, this.

A band eager to prove it's not a bunch of simpering Brit pantywaists, evidently. The ninety-minute set is superloud and surprisingly bombastic -- particularly drummer Will Champion, who bashes his kit as though either trying out for Mastodon or attempting to kill goddamned Moby Dick all by himself. WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP, Mr. Champion pounds during "Politik," an older tune with a thundering staccato chorus that makes the dudes feel all badass but still eventually dissolves into a lovely piano melody, smiley frontman Chris Martin floating away on a cloud of delicate ascending chords.

Chris does a lot of delicate floating. He is adorable and cheerful and coyly overmodest -- he thanks the crowd "for even remembering who we were" -- but backs this aw-shucks pose with ultraprecise melodic excellence, spinning splendid piano lines that're equally hypnotic as sped-up rockers (the ubiquitous "Clocks") or prom-night slow jams (the aforementioned orgasmic majesty of "The Scientist"). The factory-showroom-new tunes off X&Y still feel like familiar faces, and although that's partly because they're largely plastic surgery variations on old Coldplay hits -- new single "The Speed of Sound" sounds like every song off the band's last record, A Rush of Blood to the Head, mashed into a three-minute-sized elevator, but is still awe-inspiring in sound, scope, and the sheer ease with which it makes itself instantly memorable.

Coldplay has mastered the fine art of balancing awe with aw-shucks; the band navigates its set list with military precision, yet pauses to grin and stumble and jovially abort a take on "Don't Panic," Chris and guitarist Jon Buckland cracking each other up as the tune grinds to a very premature halt. Cute, plus it rescued the tune from the overmaudlin sheen its appearance in Garden State had saddled it with. ("That's why we're the third-best band in the world," Chris jokes to the crowd -- for the record, the two best bands in the world are Heavenly States and the Electric Six.)

Another business casual moment works similar wonders: For the new tune "'Til Kingdom Come," the band gathers at the front of the stage for some piano-harmonica coffeehouse jamming, and Mr. Champion takes over on the keys to lead something a bit looser and freer and less-calculated than the usual Coldplay fare. It's a pose, but at least it's a new one.

Of course, Mr. Gwyneth Paltrow is still the focal point, and he doesn't disappoint as he pirouettes about the stage like Stevie Nicks after eating her Halloween candy all in one night on "Yellow," the band's initial breakthrough hit. (Its inclusion on a mix tape ensures, at the very least, heavy petting.) His armada of whirling pantomime gestures and outsize facial expressions makes him a fine ringmaster for an hour or two, and though he lacks the danger and volatility of a truly great frontman, he does fine as a truly great everyman.

He is, in short, a rock star named Chris. And he brought another fine edition of Coachella Runoff Season -- Nine Inch Nails dictator Trent Reznor slicing through "The Hand That Feeds," Weezer staggering gloriously through "The Good Life," Gang of Four sneering with thrilling contempt through "At Home He's a Tourist" -- to a fittingly resounding close.

Thank you, Coachella. Let's not do it again next year.

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