On Monday night in Chicago, Coldplay’s Chris Martin proved that you don’t have to sound like a bear to tear the roof off the sucker.

It’s appropriate that Coldplay’s energy runs through the conduit of Chris Martin. His pale, frail appearance matches the fragility of his band’s lovely pop music. And it IS lovely: plenty of acoustic guitar, and prickly melodies that showcase Martin’s cracked-china falsetto. But the music (and the singer’s) balsa wood appearance belies a muscular center. Monday night, it was Will Champion’s drums that provided the muscle. While Guy Berryman (bass) and Jon Buckland (guitar) hung on in quiet desperation, Champion and Martin made it okay for fat Americans to like pretty music. Hearing a crowd of kids, yuppies, and glum Midwesterners sing along with the gospel-tinged set closer “Everything’s Not Lost” was a sublime victory for what The Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot has called the “soft parade” of new British pop.

From the moment Coldplay took the stage, Martin made it clear that they were sick as dogs. His polite stage banter undercut by coughing and gulps from his water bottle, Martin did his best to hit the high notes that ring throughout Parachutes (EMI/Nettwerk America). And he largely did. Running between his acoustic guitar and keyboard like a skinny, British Buster Keaton, Martin was almost a one-man band. Luckily, Champion’s hard-hitting drums came through with the assist. And with the help of a spectacular light show, the band tore through “Don’t Panic” and “Shiver.” But they never substituted Arena Rock American Style for what they do best: simple, earnest songs that take their own sweet time getting to the rock. This is why it was so great to see The Riviera sold out, and so many people digging Coldplay’s polite brand of voodoo jive. If this show, as well as recent sold-out Midwest appearances by Travis, Richard Ashcroft, and Stereophonics are any indication, The Heartland just might be willing to trade in its aggro-rock and growling lead singers for a bunch of friendly fellows from the UK.

All that aside, the show was still sponsored by Chicago’s modern rock mouthpiece Q101. So a significant contingent – we’ll call them The “Yellow” Brigade – were making their presence felt, lurking in the back by the bar. Despite its popularity, “Yellow” is still a beautiful song, and when it arrived midway through the set, Martin tried his damnedest to pull it off. But his voice was failing, and he broke a string on the acoustic 20 seconds in. Jon Buckland’s utter lack of distortion couldn’t pick up the slack during the song’s quiet verses, so the song suffered. But again, Martin’s nervous energy took over. Discarding the wounded guitar and jumping onto his monitor, he clapped along with the audience as they sang “Yellow”‘s final verse. “Turn into something beautiful,” indeed. And the lighters, they were flicked on throughout.

After two deserved encores, Martin shuffled out onto the stage one last time. And after playing a brand new song, “never played before, anywhere, honest,” the lone blue spotlight followed him as he made one more guitar-to-keyboard transfer. Standing up, Martin slowly sang “what the world…needs now…is love…sweet love…” and with that homage to a like-minded crooner, he waved and was gone. American Badasses take note: wimp-rock’s here to stay, and the kids love it.


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