In its second year, the All Points West Music and Arts Festival had about as much drama, great music, and headline-making news as one three-day music extravaganza could hold. Weeks before the show, the sad news that Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys was suffering with a cancerous tumor in his salivary gland was announced, forcing the beloved New York rap hometown heroes to cancel their opening-night headlining role. Stepping to the plate was rap impresario Jay-Z to take the place of the rap trio as the Friday headliner. The first day (Friday, July 31st) of the festival was marred by torrential rain, which while wreaking havoc on Liberty State Park, in New Jersey, where the festival was being held, it did not dampen the spirits of the fans who came out for day one. While day two (Saturday, August 1) was filled with heat and sunshine, the conditions did not improve, with massive puddles, muddy fields and destroyed footwear. Although I promised myself in the early 80s that I would never attend a festival concert, due to a love of all modern conveniences and overall grumpiness (and now, old age), I couldn’t pass up seeing Coldplay on their mammoth, historic tour of the decade, and, as it turned out, the band was the closing-night headliner on Sunday night.
After driving through the rain, getting a traffic ticket in Manhattan and not being allowed into the grounds until nearly 4pm, for a 12-noon opening, due to the poor conditions at the site, I finally found my way to the VIP bleachers (where I wasn’t supposed to be sitting, I learned later), having battled the mud, lake-like puddles, filthy portable toilets and awful food. If the conditions were horrendous, the music, the conduct of the crowd, the people that worked the festival and the overall vibe were heaven. The group Silversun Pickups was on the main stage when I arrived and the group absolutely tore it up, primarily playing songs from its recent Swoon (Dangerbird). With a sound that had a hard-edged rock base and songs as good as those of the late Elliot Smith, the Pickups were truly thrilling. This is a band that is clearly poised for great things. Elbow was up next and proved to be the complete opposite in mood to the Pickups. Evoking a modern twist on the music of Procol Harum and recalling the vocals of Peter Gabriel at times, the group’s ornate baroque pop also shares some of the same subtle instrumental touches of contemporaries Fleet Foxes. The group has only one US album release, The Seldom Seen Kid (Geffen), but it’s clear why it has opened so many shows for Coldplay on the group’s Viva La Vida tour. Intricate and lush, yet never wimpy nor precious, the group mixes electric rock elements and orchestral music in a sound that even at this early stage in its career sounds refined and truly unique. The group’s modest, appreciative tone won over the crowd immediately, even though most of the young concertgoers had probably never even heard of it. This is a truly outstanding new group and may be one of the bands to define the sound of music in the next decade. Next up was Echo & the Bunnymen. The band seemed oddly slotted amongst so many contemporary artists, but like all the bands on the main stage, it was handpicked by Coldplay. The group’s dark psychedelia still sounds great. Lead singer Ian McCulloch, even on a fairly warm summer night, was dressed in a heavy wool coat and seemed bemused by the whole surreal setting. It’s interesting how Coldplay is gaining a following with a sound that is occasionally influenced by U2 and that coincidentally, Echo & the Bunnymen came on the scene at the same time as U2. Coldplay’s lead singer Chris Martin has actually been working with Echo & the Bunnymen.
After a precision set change and the music being turned up loud for U2’s “Magnificent,” Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love You,” and a brief snippet of a recording of “The Blue Danube” waltz, Johann Strauss’ 1866 composition, Coldplay performed the instrumental “Life In Technicolor” and the extremely well-behaved crowd roared with delight. The backdrop from the VIP Bleachers, just to the left of the stage, was a sight to behold: the back of the Statue of Liberty jutted out just beyond the right of the stage, boats drifted by on the water and the buildings of lower Manhattan illuminated the left side of the view. After the scurrying of the “dancing roadies” in silhouette, the curtain finally lifted and the group launched into “Violet Hill.” It was clear that this was going to be more than just another concert. Given the horrible weather, the difficult conditions and the fact that this would be Coldplay’s last New York-area appearance for three years (not to mention that, as we learned later, the whole day was almost cancelled), Coldplay was out to give its fans a show they would not forget. Unlike some other bands, Coldplay has no problem playing the songs its fans come to hear. The group’s show is a veritable greatest hits concert. Relentlessly pumping out one song after another, some supported by dazzling special effects, origami-sized, butterfly-shaped, confetti, large yellow balloons (during “Yellow”) the size of dishwashers and other little gifts that were thrown out to the audience, the group wants to and does give it all it’s got. The effort is remarkable, given the endless nature of the tour, which began in June of 2008. How the members keep the pace, remain so appreciative of their fans and never get caught up in their own booming celebrity is astonishing. The band played almost all of Viva La Vida, which is nearing the nine million sales mark. It also dipped back for such faves as “Clocks,” “In My Place,” “Fix You,” “Politik,” and “The Scientist.” There was a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” performed on a small stage in the middle of the crowd, and another touching tribute, “You Gotta Fight,” for Adam of the Beastie Boys, by Chris Martin, alone at the piano, who was clearly emotional as he introduced the song. The band’s music shares much with its influences and its heroes. The members love to write about places real or imagined (“Violet Hill”), make subtle references to the songs of their heroes and influences (“Strawberry Swing,” “42”) and musically tip their hat to the actual recordings of their musical heroes (“42”). Coldplay has been criticized for being wimpy, even “weepy;” yet ultimately the group’s music is uplifting and filled with hope. Anyone who thinks Coldplay is just some pop band with a few hits on the radio needs to listen to Viva La Vida a little closer and, above all, see the band in concert. The band is clearly coming to a place that U2 was at around the time of its Joshua Tree tour. I consider myself lucky to have seen the group at this historic juncture in its musical career. How the group can sustain a tour as long as this one is beyond me. What’s even more difficult to comprehend as how it is going to top the Viva La Vida album. Few albums in the past ten years have turned out as powerful and commercially successful. After the lights came up and the instrumental “The Escapist” played, the exhausted crowd happily made its way in the darkness and mud to the ferries back home. To all those who attended the show and those that worked the festival under such trying circumstances. I applaud you. It’s not clear if the festival will return next year, but anyone who attended last year or this year is sure to remember the great music above all else.
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