By Mark Guarino
“Make me an honorary Cheesehead,” Coldplay singer Chris Martin ad-libbed, looking up at a crowd of nearly 35,000 people Saturday night at Alpine Valley, located in East Troy, Wis. If headlining dairyland isn’t on the checklist for making it big, then maybe it should. The Alpine Valley show is one of the biggest Coldplay has ever played since the spring release of their much-ballyhooed third album, “X&Y” (Capitol). Since then, their record company and some critics have forecasted Coldplay will become the U2 of their generation, a band with global appeal, a massive heart and a knack for warm, romantic anthems. At Alpine Valley, the band not only demonstrated it fits into those shoes comfortably, but that fan expectation is already at that level.
During their 100-minute, 18-song set, the four band members did not do much to stand out individually — anonymity happens when together you have the same haircut and wear all black. Center focus was on Martin who, since past tours, has developed into a lead singer who knows how to connect into the furthest pockets of the audience. Seeming to take his dance cues from the late Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz,” Martin flopped from one end of the wide stage to the next in a manner that was charming and unscripted. During the entire set, the band was determined to break paradigms stiffly enforced by other bands — one song featured video prompts that encouraged people to snap pictures, while “Yellow” was accompanied by the launching of dozens of large yellow balloons loaded with confetti. Martin refused to end the song until the very last one was popped which meant the last note he sang was held to comic extremes.
As compelling as he was, the secret weapon of Coldplay is the rhythm duo Guy Berryman on bass and Will Champion on drums. Together, their direct emphasis on both buoyancy and muscle gave the songs the cavernous scope, selling them to the back of the house. “Low” and “Square One” pulsed to such insistent beats, the songs could easily find a new home in a danceclub.
For a three-song acoustic set, the band stepped into a partition that brought them to the middle of a general admission pit. There, they played a three-song set dedicated to Johnny Cash — “Til Kingdom Come,” Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and “Beautiful World.” The new arrangements, augmented by piano, harmonica and acoustic guitars, were just as focused as the plugged in portion of the show, with no less intensity.
Coldplay has been commonly criticized for ambiguous lyrics that deliver cheaply lovelorn sentiments. In a personal setting, that might seem to be the case. But performed before a stream of masses, the songs’ thin details actually are their strength. As with U2, the themes of healing and redemption on songs like “In My Place” and “Fix You” strike a universal chord. On Saturday, they offered up moments where the audience could become the song, not just by participating in it, but also by internalizing it alongside thousands of complete strangers who were doing the same. Even the most cynical person can’t deny that’s rare, not just at a rock concert, but in day-to-day life as well.