They say everything is bigger in Texas. And that old adage certainly applies to South by Southwest. While the Austin music festival once primarily showcased rising and unsigned acts, it now serves as a promotional platform for superstars like Kanye West, Justin Bieber…and even Lady Gaga, who plans to perform inside a giant Doritos vending machine on Thursday night.
But perhaps even bigger than all those acts is Coldplay. It's been three years since their last album, and they maintained a fairly low profile throughout 2013 aside from one cut on the "Catching Fire" soundtrack, but they're still The Most Massive Rock Band On the Planet. (Sorry, U2, Stones, et al.) When they pulled a Bowie/Timberlake/semi-Beyoncé last week, suddenly announcing the May 19 release date for their sixth album "Ghost Stories" and dropping the new single "Magic," it was major news. So where better to give "Magic" and three other "Ghost Stories" tracks their proper live debut than SXSW?
"We've been away a long time, and I can't think of a better place to come back into the world," affable Coldplay frontman Chris Martin proclaimed, when his band made a rare SXSW appearance on Tuesday night.
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However, by Coldplay standards at least, this was an intimate show. Kicking off the Music portion of SXSW (and its new fest-within-a-fest known as the iTunes Festival), the group played the 2,750-capacity ACL Live Theater — a far cry from the Glastonbury-sized audiences to which they're accustomed. (Suffice to say, they did not perform inside a giant Doritos vending machine.) As they made an unassuming, shuffling entrance (20 minutes late) and started the show with the mellow, moody "Ghost Stories" song "Always in My Head," this almost felt like a warmup gig, or a flashback to those long-ago "Parachutes" days when Coldplay regularly played clubs, not stadiums.
The entire show was relaxed, maybe a little too relaxed (three songs in, Chris chuckled self-deprecatingly when he flubbed the piano intro to "Paradise" and had to start the tune over), but as the 50-minute set chugged along, the band soon overcame any rustiness and raised the energy in the room. After performing the especially crowd-rousing "Viva La Vida," Chris grinned and quipped, "We've been in the studio a long, long time, and we've forgotten how much people like to sing along!"
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It was impossible to ignore, however, that alongside singalong anthems like "Viva La Vida," "Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall," and "Clocks," new tunes like "Magic" and "Another's Arms" were extremely sedate. While they sounded lovely and pleasantly ambient in such a cozy setting, it was hard to imagine how well these songs will go over once Coldplay inevitably returns to playing mega-arenas.
But that didn't matter tonight. When Coldplay played a final encore of "Ghost Stories'" trippy, spooky chillout track "Midnight" — the ACL stage still so strewn with silly-string confetti from an earlier number that stagehands were frantically trying to dig the band's instruments out of the colorful debris — the show turned into a rave/apocalyptic prom/New Year's Eve blowout, with Chris flailing, spinning, and eventually finishing the epic song while rolling on the floor. Any concerns that The Most Massive Rock Band On the Planet had somehow scaled back its sound were perhaps unwarranted.
Still, Coldplay better watch their backs, because there's another band vying for that Massive Band title: Imagine Dragons, who opened for Coldplay on Tuesday. Having recently, incredibly topped Journey's record for best-selling rock song in digital history (yes, that's right: "Radioactive" has sold more downloads than "Don't Stop Believin'"), Imagine Dragons became The Most Massive Rock Band On the Planet by default during Coldplay's hiatus. And in many ways, their iTunes/SXSW show was a bigger spectacle than Coldplay's, involving multiple Venice Beach-worthy drum circles; so many chilly blasts of dry-ice fog that spectators reached for their jackets and cardigans; and a slow-jam version of "It's Time," during which lead singer Dan Reynolds jumped into the audience. Maybe if Kendrick Lamar — who is scheduled to headline SXSW's iTunes Festival at ACL on Wednesday — had made a surprise appearance for another Grammy-style "Radioactive" remix duet, Imagine Dragons could've even upstaged Coldplay.
But the night, in the end, truly belonged to Chris Martin and company. Coldplay's full setlist was as follows:
Always In My Head*
Viva La Vida
Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall
*from "Ghost Stories"; live debut