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At one point a a number of years ago, it seemed like Snow Patrol could be the next U2, or, if not quite that lofty, the next Coldplay. The Irish/Scottish quintet’s songs covered the same anthemic, sweeping themes and were aggressively melodic and commercial.
Plus, led by Gary Lightbody, they were a tremendous live act. I first saw them in 2003 at a Fader-sponsored party at a club at South by Southwest in Austin. They were awkward, Lightbody acted as if he were totally bombed, and there were only glimpses of anything more than an average talent. Fast forward to exactly a year later, first U.S. album “Final Straw” had come out, sold very well, and they were playing the much bigger outdoor venue Stubbs at SXSW. To this day, I have never seen a band exhibit such improvement over such a short amount of time. Lightbody commanded the audience like a pro. His voice was resonant and clear and the whole band worked like a well-oiled machine far beyond its experience.
So what happened I asked myself Tuesday night as I saw the band at the Palladium in Los Angeles, a 3,600-capacity venue. At this stage in their career, it felt like they should be playing much larger halls (and, for a while, they were in the U.S., especially after 2006’s mega-hit “Chasing Cars.” Additionally, the band has a bigger following in England and Europe than here). Though they continued to release solid albums, the growth, radio support, and momentum seemed to have leveled off, if not dropped, a few years ago.
Well, if they feel any resentment that they aren’t drawing bigger crowds in the U.S., they certainly didn’t show it. In fact, the band put on an arena concert, complete with a full light show that was the most impressive I’ve ever seen in a venue that size. Lightbody remains a formidable frontman, who cheerleads without ever being obnoxious and with a demeanor that is thoroughly engaging and funny, all of which left me walking out with the same question I had going in. Why aren't they bigger in the U.S.?
And there’s the music. The anthems only felt larger performed live; the smaller, intimate songs only more vulnerable. Mid-tempo, piano ballad “Make This Go On Forever” turned from the sweet plea it is on record into an intense, swelling, hypnotic, urgent mass of a song, greatly enhanced by a percussionist pounding a floor tom drum with giant mallets, while drummer Jonny Quinn relentlessly propelled the song forward. Lightbody cut a messianic figure as the music quieted and he sang, with arms outstretched, over and over “Please just save me from this darkness.”
The absolute best a performer can do is to make everyone feel as if they are sharing a communal, trusting moment and that there is no chasm between the artist and the audience. Lightbody succeeded on that count over and over, even jumping into the audience to sing on the poignant “In The End.”
Opener Ed Sheeran joined the band for “New York” from the band’s current album “Fallen Empires.” (The set, which came out in January, bowed at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, the band’s highest debut) “New York” is the latest in the group’s uncynical canon of yearning songs that are delivered with a convincing earnestness. Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen came on stage for a driving “Called Out on the Dark,” which he plays on “Empires.” Minneapolis-based artist/Snow Patrol touring member Tony Stewart played along on for “Set the Fire to the Third Bar,” which was missing the haunting counterpoint Martha Wainwright provides to Lightbody’s vocals on record.
Familiar songs to Snow Patrol fans (if not outright radio hits) such as the delicious “Chocolate” and “You’re All I Have” took on a spiky urgency and continue to wear well.
After the 90-minute main show, the band opened its encore with “Life-ning,” an simple song from “Empires” that consists of nothing more (or less) than what amounts to a laundry list of what Goodbody wants from life: From “waking up in your arms” and “a place to call my own” to “Ireland in the World Cup.” While that may sound a tad precious, his sweet delivery, accompanied only on guitar and keys, turned it into something of a humble statement/prayer. The evening closed with a triumphant “Just Say Yes.” On the band’s 2009 greatest hits set, “Up To Now,” its a urgent request to a lover. In concert, and as the final tune, it turned into something much more: an invitation to say “yes” to whatever life has to offer... whether that comes in theaters or stadiums.