KCRW’s fourth “A Sound Eclectic Evening” benefit could easily have been subtitled “Night of the Tremulous Male Singers.” Headlined by the current kings of quiver, Coldplay (whose delay in finishing upcoming Capitol album “X&Y” pushed the concert’s Christmas season timing to this year’s Easter-adjacent booking), the swiftly moving five-hour show reflected not only the Santa Monica station’s trademark sound, but its clout, as the show kicked off the British band’s first Stateside tour (if you discount Friday’s warmup at the Troubadour) in over two years.
Although the band has yet to completely shake off the rust (cues were missed, some of the breakdowns and transitions were awkward, and singer Chris Martin forgot a few lyrics), the energetic hourlong perf pleased fans. The songs from the new album, with the exception of the anthemic sway of the single “Speed of Sound,” find the band in a slightly more combative mode. The tempi are faster, Guy Berryman’s basslines more animated, and Jonny Buckland’s guitar playing leans into urgently repeated quarter notes, turning the band into a less druggy Echo and the Bunnymen.
They were preceded by the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan, who is just as tremulous a vocalist, but in a darker hue. Songs such as “Walk Along the Rooftops” have a brooding, romanticism — they’re mood music for relationships that end especially badly — with his pinched vocals turning more urgent over the music’s slow rumble. A cover of “Strangers in the Night” was the set’s highlight, turning the Sinatra classic into obsessive drama.
Earlier in the evening Keaton Simons, Aqualung and Joseph Arthur formed a singer-songwriter triple play. Simons has a lovely, keening voice; he was joined by Abba Roland’s earthier voice for a fine cover of Radiohead’s “No Surprises.” Arthur loops his voice and guitars into a fevered maelstrom that’s hypnotically alluring.
Aqualung, the nom de band of Briton Matthew Hale, writes and plays songs for people who worry that Coldplay are getting too edgy. Although the piano and guitar arrangements are less layered than his Sony debut “Strange and Beautiful,” the song’s soft-focus romance and gradually building crescendos still sound like they were written to be played under climactic scenes of “The OC” or “One Tree Hill.”
Cafe Tacuba and Van Hunt provided a break from the evening’s singer/songwriter focus. The former’s kitchen-sink rhythms, comic wrestling masks, constant movement and Ruben “Nru” Albarran’s lubricous growl provided a much-needed jolt of wackiness to the often too-earnest proceedings.
Soulster Hunt was the evening’s revelation. Grittier and more commanding than his often wispy album would lead you to believe, his half-hour set mixed elements of Prince, Curtis Mayfield, the Isley Brothers and Sly & the Family Stone into a funky rock crunch that brought the crowd to their feet.
The evening started with a femme perspective. Tyro trio the Like continue to mature by leaps and bounds. Songs such as “(So I’ll Sit Here) Waiting” display an unerring sense of melody and dynamics that would be impressive from a band twice their age, but their nervous but very sweet perf to open the evening had a youthful charm. Nellie McKay’s short perf found her subdued (she was suffering from the flu), but the three new songs she played proved her wondrously mature and tuneful debut was no fluke.