Coldplay gets all rock-star at the Forum

Coldplay, performing at the Forum in Los Angeles.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Special to The Times

IN THE title track of Coldplay‘s new “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends,” frontman Chris Martin admits that “people couldn’t believe what I’d become.” He’s singing from the perspective of a freshly deposed king, reflecting on the delights of his authoritarian reign, but the line also works to describe Martin’s stature as a musician.

Eight years after “Yellow” made him the cheek-pinchable face of a new brand of bravado-less introspection, Martin -- a man once given to lyrical proclamations like, “I never meant to cause you trouble” -- has morphed into an attention-hungry rock star with no shortage of sex-bomb swagger.

Thank goodness for that.

Monday at the Forum, during the first of two sold-out shows that kicked off Coldplay’s current world tour, Martin and his bandmates succeeded in proving onstage what strong sales of “Viva la Vida” have suggested on paper -- that right now there is no bigger rock group on the planet. “I can tell this is gonna be a good one,” Martin announced after the band opened with the new album’s “Violet Hill,” and he was right.

Goaded into experimentation by the producer Brian Eno, perhaps best known for doing the same with Martin’s beloved U2, Coldplay shakes up its sound on “Viva la Vida,” embroidering songs with sensual Latin grooves, African-inspired guitar lines and bleary keyboard textures Eno might’ve found on an old tape left over from the sessions for “Achtung Baby.”

The music’s textural adventurousness is matched by a renewed emotional vitality; these openhearted pleas for peace, love and understanding don’t sound stifled, as older Coldplay material sometimes has, by an air of apology.

That yen for connection defined the band’s 90-minute set Monday, which drew from “Viva la Vida” as well as from Coldplay’s first three albums.

Dressed in the vintage military garb they’ve apparently selected as the new CD’s sartorial representation, the four musicians played on a relatively bare-bones set before a backdrop emblazoned with the Eugène Delacroix painting that serves as “Viva la Vida’ “s cover.

In place of the Jumbotrons that usually flank the stage in an arena show, video was funneled to a tiny TV sitting atop a bank of keyboards.

The motivating idea wasn’t so much a rejection of spectacle -- these guys love nothing more, as demonstrated by the butterfly-shaped confetti that fell to the floor during “Lovers in Japan” -- as it was a minimization of distraction.

Fortunately, the band mostly repaid the audience’s attention: Martin sang his little heart out, hitting unlikely high notes while doing dance moves he appeared to have learned by watching clips of toddlers on YouTube.

During “Viva la Vida,” Will Champion bashed away at an enormous kettle drum placed at center stage. Guitarist Jonny Buckland filled the Forum with playing that alternated between tart lead lines (as in “Strawberry Swing”) and atmospheric washes (as in “The Scientist”). And bassist Guy Berryman anchored the music with a dependably steady pulse, even hinting at a submerged sense of funk in “Lost!”

On several of the weirder cuts from the new album, including “Yes” and “42,” Coldplay didn’t quite muster its in-studio precision, which made the songs seem unformed rather than unconventional. However risky it’s become, this is still a band that thrives on big hooks, and when those disappeared, so did the concert’s energy.

The same went for Martin’s decision near the end of the show to present a video of Bill O’Reilly calling the singer a “pinhead” on the Fox News Channel. Petulance is rarely thrilling. Of course, an inability to countenance criticism often accompanies a transition into top-tier rock stardom, so it’s probably unreasonable to expect a performance as powerful as Monday’s without at least a splash from Martin’s bottle of whine.

In this economy, that trade-off resembles a pretty sweet deal.