Do you remember Keane, The Coldplay that never was? You might hear Keane’s songs on shopping mall or grocery store soundtracks, or played during previews of a very special episode of a particularly treacly television drama. Although it is very easy to write bands such as Keane off in this way, it also somewhat discounts their achievements, such as the modest hits “Everybody’s Changing” and “Somewhere Only We Know”3 “Spiralling”, a synthier effort from third album Perfect Symmetry, was even bestowed the honor of being voted by Q magazine as song of 2008. Despite that synth-laden diversion, Keane primarily deals in bland, radio-friendly rock, which means Keane live shows are equally bland and crowd-pleasing.
Mystery Jets, a comparatively more daring act, served as Keane’s opener on this tour. Other than both bands hailing from Britain and having “land” in the title of their most recent releases — Mystery Jets’ lovely high pop achievement Radlands and Keane’s same-old same-old Strangeland — the two crews seem to have barely anything in common. The cruel truth of life means that, with four albums to their name and some of the more charming hooks out of the newer class of post-punk inspired British rapscallions, Mystery Jets are still paying the dues by acting as opener for a lesser band and playing to a sparsely attended theater in Philadelphia. As my friend pointed out, she did once hear “Serotonin” — the only non-Radlands track the band played — in a Gap store, so perhaps Mystery Jets and Keane do have more in common than meets the eye. The crowd clapped along politely through songs like “Greatest Hits” whether they got the Mark E Smith reference or not, but little else can be said in terms of charm.
When Keane made their prompt entrance at 9:05, pomp was scarce but still discernible even before “You Are Young” was launched into. It was most apparent in the risers set in front of drummer Richard Hughes’ kit. It was also noticeable via the throes of passion exhibited by a large expanse of the audience. One young lady in the balcony was particularly euphoric, singing every word to every song while waving her hands conductor-style. After every few songs, she pitched back in her theater seat and kicked her legs in the air as she wiped a few remaining tears of joy away. Elsewhere in the higher seats, a quartet of men sang aloud to “Leaving So Soon?” with arms linked around one another. Although far from the average concert venue, the anthemic quality of Keane’s songs and such crowd reactions made the Merriam Theatre feel like the local pub.
Although Keane create a friendly enough sound and clearly have not given up their commercial aspirations, seeing the band live gives a clear enough case as to why it never achieved arena status. Lead singer Tom Chaplin strives to make a crowd connection in the effortless way of someone like Bono or Coldplay’s Chris Martin. He never quite gets there. Although Chaplin makes the usual “how you doin’?” small-talk and encouragements between songs, a bond with the front row and beyond is never quite forged. At times, Chaplin even leaned down as if to serenade the five or six girls at the foot of the stage, but eye contact — or even a simple finger point — was never made. At least the first few rows didn’t seem to mind; seats were neglected for the majority of the band’s set.
Even if a Keane live show is lacking, it is still hard to deny the inoffensive catchiness of the band’s better known songs. “Everybody’s Changing” was wheeled out early to the audience’s pleasure and surprise. “Somewhere Only We Know” came later in the set, but the band admirably didn’t result to the ploy of positioning it as the closer for the regular set or as the first song in the encore. Yet, for the nice hooks, these songs sound like they could be written by anyone; and Keane’s live show failed to put any more of a patent on these songs. It remains largely unlikely that Keane will be amphitheater bound anytime soon, but I’m sure you’ll be hearing Strangeland single “Silenced by the Night” at a mall near you sometime soon.