There were fireworks, confetti cannons, giant balloons, spacey lasers and flashing coloured wristbands that turned the whole of Wembley Stadium into a glittering galaxy of light. And that was just for the first song. Coldplay really are modern masters of stadium entertainment, and they did not stint on pyrotechnics, big screens, multiple stages and surprise guest stars, all the razzle dazzle audiences have come to expect from such gargantuan scale entertainment. But their most potent weapon of mass entertainment is their ability to transmit joy through the power of song. At the heart of this spectacle was an almost spiritual sense of human connection as 90,000 people danced, sang and roared as one.
Friday was the first of six shows at the historic London sports stadium, where a quartet who formed at University College London 24 years ago will perform to over half a million devotees. “We used to play this song about a mile away from here in front of no people at all,” noted frontman Chris Martin as the band conjured a delicate encore of obscure ballad Sparks from their 2000 debut album, Parachutes.
Some bands can lose themselves in the transition from local heroes to global superstars, drifting towards overloaded bombast, but Coldplay (like their role models U2) use all the high-tech jiggery pokery to reinforce a sense of community. It would be a hard-hearted curmudgeon who didn’t leave with a smile to match that of Martin and his band, who seemed to be having as much fun as anyone in Wembley Stadium. There was a lot of talk about “coming home”, but it wasn’t football related, it was about a feeling of being among your own people. “We’re all in the same band today,” said Martin, exuding a wide-eyed sincerity that has remained uncorrupted by fame and fortune.
But what band is that, exactly? With over a 100 million album sales and more than a dozen global smash singles, Coldplay are the most commercially successful band of the 21st century. It is a career that has seen them shift from epic, angst-filled singalong rock to giddily colourful digital pop with only Martin’s voice and gift for melodic hooks as connecting tissue. One minute they were bathed in stark lighting thundering through the darkly driven Politik and soaring, exultant Clocks from 2002’s Rush of Blood to the Head, the next they had donned comedy alien masks and were doing a silly dance down a platform to a clubby remix of 2017 Chainsmokers collaboration Something Just Like This. They offered up a jolly acoustic jam with R’n’B veteran Craig David and beamed in video of Korean boyband BTS for last year’s earworm hit My Universe. It is as if Radiohead were trying to find common ground with Take That, and only the sense of occasion and Martin’s charismatic enthusiasm managed to hold it together.
All things are not created equal, and frankly songs from the first half of their career essayed a gravity and intensity that left the rest in the dust. The lights dimmed and staging was minimal as Martin sat at a piano to play The Scientist, the band masterfully building momentum as the audience moved from hushed reverence to deafening singalong. Sometimes a truly great song is the most special effect of all.
Coldplay are at Wembley Stadium until August 21, then Hampden Park Stadium, Glasgow, on 23-24 August