Coldplay, Imagine Dragons Launch iTunes Festival at SXSW

Chris Martin of Coldplay performs at the iTunes Festival at the Moody Theater on March 11, 2014 in Austin, TX

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

“We’ve been away a long time,” Coldplay’s Chris Martin told fans on Tuesday night at South By Southwest, “and I can’t think of a better place to come back into the world.” Or a more auspicious one.

Coldplay’s first North American show in more than 14 months had the eyes of the world focused on it -- literally. As the inaugural headliner of the first U.S. iTunes Festival, taking place over five nights during this year’s SXSW, Coldplay’s “come back” was streamed worldwide as well as being one of the most in-demand lottery tickets for those there in the flesh at Austin’s ACL Live at Moody Theatre. The British quartet wasn’t exactly creeping back into vision.

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Then again, creeping has never been Coldplay’s way -- certainly not since the group became a global force more than a decade ago. It’s comfortable in the bright spotlight, and if Tuesday’s show seemed surprisingly brief at just 50 minutes and 11 songs, it also established that Coldplay hasn’t accrued much rust while hunkered in the studio making its forthcoming "Ghost Stories" album, due out May 19.

And the presence of brand new, never-before-played material certainly gave the set an extra charge. “Always in My Head” opened the show on a gentle, easygoing note, while “Magic” and “Another’s Arms” were vibe-y and soulful, with trance-like grooves and, in the case of the former, a gradually building arrangement that achieved an ambient lift-off after its stark beginning. The show-closing “Midnight,” meanwhile, was another matter, with Martin’s heavily Auto-Tuned vocals swimming through trippy electronic textures, an outgrowth of the group’s varied European techno influences and a head-scratcher of a way to end the night.

Coldplay couched the "Ghost Stories" quartet amidst familiar material, however. Playing on a compact stage and clearly reveling in the close proximity the Moody allows to its audiences, Coldplay employed some lasers and an explosion of streamers during “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” that left the band members looking like mummies.

The likes of “Charlie Brown,” “Clocks” and “Vida La Vida” were as dependably anthemic as ever, and after the crowd’s exuberant response to the latter Martin noted that, “We’ve been in the studio a long time, and we forgot people sing along.”  Meanwhile, “Atlas,” from "The Hunter Games: Catching Fire" soundtrack,  fit comfortably alongside the big hits, and before “Fix You” Martin sent “good vibes and love across the ocean” in reference to the Malaysian airliner disappearance.

At set's end, Martin thanked the fans “for giving us such a warm welcome back” -- and an audible demand for more in the not too distance future.

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Before Coldplay explored the moods of its new album, Imagine Dragons celebrated the continued success of its debut, "Night Visions," with a stomping 65 minutes that, at times, seemed like the group was playing more drums than all the other acts playing in Austin on Tuesday combined. But during its long period of non-stop touring, the Las Vegas quintet has opened up the songs, and on Tuesday it grafted extended sections into nearly all 11 songs, including an a capella-style intro for “It’s Time” and expanded outro sections onto “Tiptoe,” “Hear Me,” “Rocks” and “Cha Ching (Until We Grow Older).” “Radioactive” was fortified with a percussion breakdown in its midsection, while “The River” nodded to the pre-fame portion of the group’s career.

London Grammar clearly had its supporters at the Moody, too -- including Imagine Dragons’ frontman Dan Reynolds -- and the British trio certainly won some friends during a show singer Hannah Reid called “the best thing we feel we have done.” Reid and company put their best foot forward, too, with assured performances of a half-dozen songs from their 2013 debut “If You Wait,” including particularly strong renditions of “Wasting My Young Years,” “Strong” and “Metal & Dust.”

The iTunes Festival continues through Saturday, with performances by Kendrick Lamar on Wednesday, Soundgarden and Capital Cities on Thursday, Pitbull and Zedd on Friday and Keith Urban and Willie Nelson on Saturday. All of the shows are being streamed live via the iTunes store.