Keane brought a cleanly executed set of career-spanning material to the sold-out Pantages Theatre on Saturday night. The audience stayed on its feet for most of the concert, roused by the polished showmanship of frontman Tom Chaplin, yet the atmosphere was one of careful restraint and polite enthusiasm. After all, Keane has developed a sound that is so immaculately-polished and void of even the slightest abrasion that any other audience response would have seemed wildly inappropriate.
Emerging in the early ’00s, Keane has continued to maintain a strong commercial presence in spite of its decidedly out-of-step, piano-led approach to pop music. Early musical peers who tapped into the then-popular trend of Radiohead-lite, emotion-driven rock — Starsailor, Turin Brakes, Aqualung, South — have mostly fallen by the wayside. But through a series of clever marketing concepts (a 3D concert at Abbey Road, extensive licensing of songs in videogames and film) and universally accessible songwriting, the band has maintained a strong fanbase inside and outside of its native England. In May of last year, the group’s new album “Strangeland” debuted at number one in the U.K. (17 in the U.S.), marking its fifth straight appearance at the top of the British charts.
The Pantages is perhaps Los Angeles’ most startlingly beautiful historic theater — ornate, lusciously decorated and exquisitely restored. For Keane it proved a perfect venue, adding a layer of concertgoing comfort to an audience that appeared far more age-diverse than that of the typical L.A. musical performance. As a four-piece, the group delivered the sparest of arrangements, providing a minimal bed of sound in support of Chaplin’s stunningly powerful voice.
Opening with the up-tempo trilogy of “You Are Young,” “Bend and Break” and “On the Road,” Keane showcased an enthusiasm that admirably injected early momentum into a set loaded with slow-paced ballads. Bruce Springsteen has clearly influenced much of the “Strangeland” material, and in its own, buttoned-up way, Keane is trying to tap into the Boss’ image-heavy world of bombast and desperation. The results are mixed, and in the live setting it is clear that Keane is at its best when delivering emotionally wounded ballads.
“She Has No Time” proved to be a standout among the down-tempo ballads, with Chaplin’s forceful falsetto conveying an earnest sense of loss and sadness. “Hamburg Song,” another stripped-down electric piano-led number, was equally chilling and forceful. These ballads are excellent examples of quality songwriting, and though the group may operate in a cheesy, lukewarm area between alternative and mainstream rock, they are clearly capable of writing some perfectly crafted tunes.
Perhaps no single track highlights the band’s best qualities more than early hit “Somewhere Only We Know,” a crowd favorite that was performed towards the end of the evening. A nostalgic set of naturalistic images populates the verses, eventually giving way to a powerful and direct bridge-chorus sequence that is emotionally rich and melodically satisfying. It proved to be the only instance where the entire audience sang along and Chaplin capitalized on the moment by ceding his mic to the crowd for a joyously sung final bridge.
The performance lasted close to two hours, a bit too long for a band with such symmetrical musical arrangements, but the members of Keane did everything that could be expected of them. As artists, they aren’t Radiohead, they aren’t U2, and they aren’t Coldplay, but they seem comfortable in their own, decidedly conservative skin.