AUSTIN, Texas — For any English band, playing this Texas hipster mecca’s long-running PBS music show “Austin City Limits” is a big checkmark on the rock-and-roll bucket list. Coldplay got their second hash mark on Thursday night, taping a 90-minute special edition of the 37-year-old show just 24 hours before they take the stage for a much bigger crowd just around the corner at Zilker Park as part of the three-day Austin City Limits festival.
Like plugging in at New York’s Radio City or Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, it’s the kind of honor that most bands would kill for just once. Only this time, unlike their 2005 appearance, there was also some “Masterpiece Theater”-style acting involved, as they were taping a show intended to air on New Year’s Eve. That time-travel twist required a bit of cold-weather thinking in the midst of one of the hottest summers in Lone Star State history.
As they’ve done all year at other festival appearances, the band mixed such crowd favorites as “The Scientist” with half a dozen new songs, including one singer Chris Martin said they just finished last month. (And, as they’ve been doing on this tour, this was all after they walked out to the theme from “Back to the Future”; see above time-travel reference.)
Martin started the night at the piano for the album’s gentle coda, which segued right into the driving, triumphant “Hurts Like Heaven,” during which the room filled with candy-colored laser blasts from a pair of neon target set pieces at the back of the stage.
The new downtown 2,700-capacity “Limits” studio was decked out like a neon blacklight wonderland, with audience members handed paint-splashed T-shirts as they walked in, which were to be kept under wraps until a big reveal later in the show.
The band’s gear was also colorized, with brightly hued chalk-like scribblings covering their amps, piano and drums.
It’s hard to describe the rush of watching a band that plays to tens of thousands on stages so tall you have to crane your neck to see them from the front row as they plug in and play just a few feet off the ground, easily within arm’s reach. And if you thought “Yellow” sounded huge in a field with 30,000 of your closest friends, imagine what it’s like when you can count the veins popping on Martin’s forehead.
For the new, ripping, U2-esque “Major Minor,” I took a trip up to the control room and watched as the show’s director called out rapid-fire cues while watching a bank of 28 monitors. You can’t get a better feel for the band’s subtle, easy dynamic than watching isolated hi-def close-ups of all four members loping their way through “Lost!” and observing the unspoken internal rhythm that makes their shows so seamless.
Drummer Will Champion cranked it up for “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face,” whip-cracking his kit with abandon as if for a moment he thought he was in the Foo Fighters. Ever polite, Martin apologized for being so sweaty — joking that his profuse perspiration is the very thing keeping his band off “The Bachelor” — before he unwrapped the world debut of the final song they finished for their upcoming album Mylo Xyloto . He said the gentle ballad “Up in Flames” — which features a memorable falsetto chorus and hypnotic tick-tock rhythm — was completed just five weeks earlier, just in the nick of time to make the cut.
That tune moved into another new mellow one, the acoustic “Us Against the World,” which Martin started over again after dropping a barrage of not-safe-for-PBS f-bombs following a guitar mishap. The second time he got it right, as Champion joined him in perfect harmony on the line “slow it down,” with guitarist Jonny Buckland adding in some tasteful, sustained-note Morse code soloing.
It wasn’t quiet for long, though, as “Politik” exploded with driving drums and piano. By the time Martin tinkled out the first notes of “Viva La Vida” on the piano, the audience was already whoa-oh-oooh-ing along. As it cranked up, they were on their feet, ecstatically clapping and singing along as the song built to its familiar crescendo.
When the whoa-ooohs really kicked in, Martin jumped up on the drum riser and bounced on his toes, his arms held up like a triumphant prizefighter.
With the crowd decked out in their paint-splashed T-shirts, Martin counted down to midnight, pretending it was cold outside, even though everyone in the chilly studio knew 85-degree nighttime swelter shortly awaited them. Confetti canons shot out paper butterflies and three screens covered the Day-Glo toys that descended for the new tune “Charlie Brown,” whose final line, fittingly, is about glowing in the dark.
The set crashed to a close with another fresh track, the dark, funky “Paradise,” which seems ripe for a beat-heavy remix (perhaps with a hip-hop break from pal Jay-Z?).
The encore rolled out the driving 1-2-3 punch of the swelling “Clocks,” slow-burn epic “Fix You” and recent uplifting single “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” which had Martin pogoing along with, and for a brief moment in the middle of, the ecstatic audience.
It was one of those special nights when a band with a major arsenal finds a way to take its giant energy and squeeze it down into a much smaller space, without losing any of their arena-packing magic.