52% intelligent. 9% modest. More monkey than bear.

Monday, September 21, 2009

the hollowest of halos is no halo at all....

White Lies / Girls Aloud / Jay-Z / Coldplay @ Wembley Stadium, 18th September 2009

I think the last gig I attended at Wembley Stadium was Guns N'Roses way back in August 1991. It was shortly before the "Use Your Illusion" albums were released, and as I recall, the band kept us waiting for something like 2 1/2 hours after their scheduled onstage time before deigning to make an appearance. Small wonder that it was Izzy Stradlin's last gig with the band before heading off to form the immortal Ju Ju Hounds. The bill at Wembley that night included Nine Inch Nails and Skid Row.

Not only did this gig have a rather different line up, but the old stadium itself has undergone something of a facelift since then. The now-demolished Wembley Towers might be lamented, but surely very few people miss much about the cavernous old stadium itself: everything about this new version seems to be an improvement, from the elegant arch to the way that the -- mostly under cover -- seats now hug up close to the edge of the pitch since the removal of the athletics track. The end result is a venue that feels less like a stadium and more like a relatively intimate arena gig..... it's never going to be as up-close-and-personal a venue as somewhere like the Rescue Rooms, but these things are relative, after all. At a stadium gig, I'll take all of the intimacy I can get, thanks.

White Lies are a band that I've wanted to see for a little while. Their debut album was one that LB said I would like, and sure enough, when I bought it, it was indeed an album that I liked. Superficially, I suppose they sound as though they have a lot in common with bands like Interpol and Editors... mainly meaning that they have a dark, dense rock sound and singer Harry McVeigh has a deep, almost Ian Curtis-like singing voice. Actually, I don't think they're an especially depressing band at all, with lyrical themes often speaking of escape and love. Here they were granted something like 30 minutes to make an impression on Coldplay's crowd, and perhaps sensibly they opted to open with their two most famous songs: "Farewell to the Fairground" and "To Lose My Life". I thought they sounded pretty good. McVeigh has a slightly alarming bulging vein on his neck when he's singing, but otherwise I thought they did the best with the time slot they had. Oddly, I thought they actually sounded slightly like Ultravox live, but I still saw enough to think that I should make the effort to see them playing their own show at Rock City later in the year. You've also got to love a band who sign off what is probably their biggest ever gig by saying "We've been White Lies and here's a song called 'Death'".

I liked them.

When Coldplay first announced these dates, the reason we chose to attend the Friday date rather than the Saturday was because Girls Aloud were initially only playing the first date, and Jay-Z was only playing the second. Later on, long after the tickets had been purchased, it was announced that they would both be playing both nights.... We'd chosen Friday not only through a desire to avoid Jay-Z, but also because C. was quite keen to see the Girls in action. Various people at work have found it amusing that I would be watching a band like Girls Aloud in action, but actually I was quite curious to see them. Other than at somewhere like Glastonbury, when else was I likely to see a band as "pop" as this?

Naturally, the guys in the office were keen to know which of the band was my favourite... and the honest answer is I don't have one. In the fallout of Beatles-gate, I'd already established that I could name the band. Hell, I even have their greatest hits on my iPod.... but a favourite? Nah. That said, I did have to take one of my colleagues to task when he told me that I surely couldn't fancy "the ginger one or the fat one". Now, I'm pretty sure that even Nicola herself wouldn't vehemently deny being ginger.... but which one of those girls is supposedly the fat one? I think he meant Kimberley, but to call her fat is just ridiculous.


So what were they like? Well, I thought they were fun but a touch under-rehearsed. One or two of their vocals were a bit off-key (especially on "I'll Stand By You"). I also thought that whoever dressed and choreographed their backing dancers wants shooting. What on earth were they were thinking of when they dressed them in fluorescent hi-top trainers and luminous dungarees and had them prancing around like children's TV presenters?? I also thought, and I know that this sounds ridiculous, that their songs sounded wafer thin and bubblegum light. I know they're a pop band, but I thought that I quite liked songs like "Biology".... and then I listened to it live, and realised that I actually only like about ten seconds of it. It's true that they repeat that ten second snippet several times during the song, but the rest is pretty ordinary. Yes, songs like "Love Machine" and "The Promise" are great, but I was disappointed by the rest.

Still, they were entertaining... and perhaps even a touch nervous to be playing in such a big venue in front of a rock band's audience. *

Jay-Z. Ah, Jay-Z. I saw him at Glastonbury in 2008 and surprised myself by enjoying his set very much. I'm not a massive fan of the genre, but he was witty and entertaining, and the whole gig had been turned into something of an EVENT by all that stupid controversy about a rapper headlining Glastonbury. He slayed it.... but I felt very little need to see him perform live again, and took the opportunity to look for a pint, something to eat and a chance to take the weight off my feet before the headliners came on.

As I sat at the far end of the stadium from the stage, I marvelled at Jay-Z's performance: all the songs sound as though they've had a backing track supplied by Linkin Park, and Jay's act seems to consist of allowing that backing track to play, watching his supporting rapper and exhorting the crowd to "bounce! bounce!" with an accompanying wave of his arm. I'm sure he's very good at what he does... but I just don't get it.

...although "99 Problems" still sounds brilliant. I can only imagine what Beyonce thinks of the lyrics, but it's a great record.

He seemed to go down very well with the, by now very excitable, crowd, but I certainly don't need to see him a third time to tell you that he's not my cup of tea.

Each to their own.

Which brings us to the headliners.....

I've seen Coldplay several times now. In fact, I actually saw them on this same tour, some nine months and 150 shows ago in December last year at the NIA in Birmingham.... and that's the problem. Much though I like Coldplay, and I think it's been pretty well-documented here that I do very much like Coldplay, when their setlist is at least 90% the same as a show you've already seen -- including the little off-the-cuff bits of Satie that Chris Martin throws in when at the piano, then your enjoyment is going to be limited... at least a little bit.

Don't get me wrong, I thought that Coldplay were good.... it's just that I could almost reprint my review from December word for word.

"They played a strong set tonight, bookended by the different versions of "Life in Technicolour". They have now got enough material that they are able to play singles like "Violet Hill", "Clocks", "Speed of Sound", "Fix You", "In My Place" and "Yellow" very early on in the set. "Fix You" in particular, a song that I've never quite liked, seeing it as being too much like Coldplay in excelsis, is embraced by the crowd and becomes the night's first - but not last - mass communal singalong"


"The new material sounded pretty good. "Lost" (thankfully without Jay-Z), "Cemeteries of London" and "42" all sound good, and "Viva La Vida" is a showstopper with a vocal harmony section at the end seems tailor made for a crowd to roar along to"

Well, we did get Jay-Z this time around, mucking about with Martin and trying to put him off the song, but the rest is still true.

"The band themselves are far from static: they do a little segment at the end of one of the walkways, where they emphasise the strength of their material by playing songs as good as "Talk" and "God Put A Smile on Your Face" in a slightly offhand, casual way. Later on in the show, the band also made their way along the side of the arena to a space right at the very back, from where they play another few songs."

That medley actually annoys me even more now: both are great songs in their own right, but they're tossed away in an almost jokey manner, and I find myself wishing that the band didn't play them at all rather than teasing us like this. We're in a stadium now, so the band can't practically make their way to a section at the back, but they do make their way to a small stage near the sound-desk, where they are inexplicably joined by Simon Pegg, who stands around a lot pretending to play the harmonica and is pretty much entirely a spare part throughout. His presence is entirely superfluous, and I'm not sure how he wasn't ashamed to stand there. Mind you, the cover of "Billy Jean" that we're treated to in this little segment is actually surprisingly good, with the vocals suiting Chris Martin (and drummer Will's) falsettos. They've probably been playing it since Jackson's death in June, but this is the first time I've heard them do it and they actually do a pretty good job of it. Credit where credit is due.

"The band finish the show with "The Scientist", an absolutely barnstorming version of "Lovers in Japan" where phosphorescent ticker-tape rains from the ceiling, and leave us with "Life in Technicolour II". It's a good show. The new songs sound great, the old songs are received by the enthusiastic crowd as old friends. The band seem to have a good time, with Chris Martin being his usual puppy-ish, bouncy, cheerful self. We all have a good old sing-song. It's a good show. No question. So why is it that I feel slightly distanced from the whole thing?"

It's not ticker-tape, I discovered, they are paper butterflies... and in spite of the fact that I've seen the effect before, it actually works fantastically well in the stadium, with butterflies drifting down onto the crowd long after the band have actually left the stage.....

It's a good show, dammit. I like Coldplay and I like the fact that, in stark contrast to a band like U2, their approach to a massive stadium gig like this is really simple and stripped down. The songs are good and it's really hard not to warm to a band led by a singer as eager-to-please as Chris Martin. The rest of the band are also doing so much more than making up the numbers, something made entirely evident at the end when the band link arms for their traditional bow to the crowd before leaving the stage for the last time.

But.... I've seen the show before. That's not Coldplay's fault, for sure. Neither is it the band's fault that I have a slightly snobbish dislike for a stadium crowd. It's all part of the territory when attending a big gig like this, but I can't help but notice that we're surrounded by people who are probably attending their only gig of the year. It's okay to be excited, really it is. I don't expect everyone to keep a cool reserve, after all, and I expect a certain amount of pushing and shoving in a big crowd like this.... but this was ridiculous. No, I don't have a great deal of sympathy for you looking for your friends down at the front ten minutes before the headliners come on. Not when you've obviously just popped out for a round, anyway. That said, nor do I have a great deal of sympathy for the guy just in front of me who seemed to be getting more and more stressed with each person who pushed past him. No one likes being pushed and shoved, but if you want to be reasonably close to the band, then that's what you have to put up with. If you don't like big crowds, don't push yourself up to the front. As for the guy who decided to spark up a massive cigar......

Perhaps I'm getting too old for all this.

Verdict: This is a tough one. I enjoyed the day as a whole; I was happy to spend the day at Wembley with my friends and I thought all the bands were good in their own ways... but... I wasn't especially inspired by Coldplay as I'd seen them perform essentially the same set a few months before. They were good, but....

6.5 / 10

I've seen Coldplay perform better, but I reckon it's ultimately harsh to mark them down too far for a decent performance just because I've seen them performing more or less the same set before. Ultimately though, it was a good day but not a great gig.


* for the record, and if absolutely forced to choose, it's Sarah. There's something about her froideur and the fact that where the others are girls, she's a woman..... but like I say, I don't have a favourite.



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