The Empire Strikes Back
4.45 pm: Yours truly is speaking on BBC Radio 5 about the band Creed. That’s the focus of the show, but more generally the underlying presumption that fuels this focus is that American bands rarely succeed in Britain and British bands seldom strike it big in the US. But that theory flies in the face of nearly 50 years of rock’n'roll history, where a near symbiosis has existed between British and American pop music, one influencing and inspiring the other in a balanced back-and-forth relationship. Still, recent history seems to suggest that the British and American music scenes are diverging more and more, with dance and indie being the dominant trend in the UK for the last decade and hip-hop, teen pop, alternative, and country (in the early ‘90s) being the most popular and wide-spread forms of pop music in the US during the same period. So the presumption the BBC radio host was making is hardly baseless. But . . .
10.15 pm: Coldplay are close to winding down a one-plus hour set of soaring, dynamic, sensitive, heart-felt, stadium-size rock at the Chicago Theatre to an adoring audience that stands throughout the entire show, singing along to virtually every chorus. Coldplay never came up during the BBC discussion, but Coldplay, Travis, and Radiohead have proven that UK rock still has legs in the US.
Radiohead’s OK Computer basically kicked off this spate of UK guitar rock bands possessing extraordinary lead singers, complex song arrangements with shifting and dramatic dynamics, moody and introspective lyrics, and an attempt to look beyond the confines of “rock” for inspiration. Post-OK Computer Radiohead have gone off into electronic noodlings, seemingly disillusioned with guitar rock. Travis picked up the mantle from Radiohead and then Coldplay followed right behind them with “Yellow”, the song of the summer of 2000 in the UK. Hot on Coldplay’s heels comes the Dublin power trio JJ72. And the cycle continues.
Coldplay’s lead singer Chris Martin announced from the stage that this show is basically the last touring for the insanely successful debut album Parachutes, and that the band has been through Chicago three times this year. Martin asks the crowd if they are sick of Coldplay. My local pub is. They put a sign on the jukebox with a boldface lie stating that the Coldplay and Abba CDs don’t work - yes, Momma Mia is as insanely popular in the US as it is in London. But the wait staff of Nevin’s Pub is nowhere to be seen in the Chicago Theatre. Indie kids, 30-something computer nerds, 40-something couples, and 20-something frat boys and sorority girls all revel in the highly infectious sounds of Parachutes.
Naturally, “Yellow” was the one that really whipped the crowd up into a tizzy of excitement. The BBC may be surprised to learn that a broad cross-section of American music fans can sing this song by heart. Any band that can inspire pubs to block their songs from the jukebox has clearly entered the national consciousness.
While the crowd may have been waiting for “Yellow”, it’s clear these folks are fans of Coldplay and Parachutes, not a one-hit wonder. “Don’t Panic”, “Spies”, and “Everything’s Not Lost” had the punters swaying, lighting cigarette lighters and illicit joints, and confidently mouthing lyrics they had long since committed to memory.
The greatest surprise of the evening was Coldplay tackling the classic Hank Williams song “Lost Highway”. Beginning quiet and acoustic and exploding into glorious, electric rock, the band transformed the country classic into a heavy dose of smoldering pop. It was a brilliant moment, highlighting how broadly British bands draw from the wellspring of American music. For a band often wrongly tagged as Jeff Buckley clones, moments like this prove Chris Martin and the boys have an extensive musical palate to draw from. Country elements were largely absent from Parachutes, but like Travis before them, Coldplay might be henceforth casting a glance toward Nashville for inspiration on occasion.
8.45 pm: The new Coldplay has landed on US shores in the form of JJ72. In US terms, JJ72 is basically where Coldplay was a year ago. They have a hit album in the UK, a career defining hit song, “Oxygen”, and a vocalist that is among the very finest in rock music. There’s a trajectory that runs from Thom Yorke (Radiohead) through Fran Healy (Travis) and on to Chris Martin and now Mark Greaney (JJ72). The commonality is sensitive, evocative, almost virtuoso rock singing, shaded with enough complexities to perfectly complement the highly intricate arrangements of these band’s songs. The best of the bunch may well be Greaney, whose sweet, light soprano vocals can suddenly turn into a powerful tenor howl at the drop of a hat. The man is flat-out brilliant, a vocal wonder, one of those rare voices that is so uniformly superb that you wouldn’t mind listening to it singing names out of a phone book.
Furthermore, Greaney is a triple threat: a potent songwriter, accomplished guitarist, gifted vocalist. His bandmates are no slouches either. Fergal Matthews’ muscular drumming powers these mini-epics of songs with an essential strength and confidence. Likewise, Hilary Wood’s supple bass playing shades every song with texture and kick-ass attitude.
Greaney began the show by asking the crowd if anyone even knew who they were. He was surprised by the response, as would the BBC, the crowd shouted a “yea” in affirmation that they knew and liked JJ72. Of course they like JJ72, any Coldplay fan would, and those that didn’t know the band before the show, surely went out looking for their debut album JJ72 (Lakota/Columbia) after the show.
The UK hit single “Oxygen” is JJ72’s “Yellow”—a perfect pop song, instantly memorable, endlessly singable, and handmade for the 70,000-plus crowds of Wembley Stadium—not the local bar. JJ72 stormed through other high points off the debut record, such as the enchanting “October Swimmer”, another slice of pop perfection, the alternately operatic and grungy “Snow”, and the endearing “Undercover Angel”.
Greaney accented almost every track with carefully controlled guitar feedback and the swell of sounds produced from his smorgasbord of guitar peddles. Only a substandard sound system undermined his and the band’s attempts at reproducing the orchestral textures of these songs. More hit records and label support will surely alleviate these technical shortcomings. Still, no sound system in the world can disguise a great band in the making, and like, Coldplay before them, JJ72 is surely a great band with endless cross-over potential in the US. JJ72 may do well to learn from their musical mentors and spend the requisite time touring the US over and over. The tough touring grind is bound to pay divendends for this talented band and prove all over again that even the BBC can get it wrong. Great British rock can become popular in the US with enough effort. Talent like this knows no boundaries.