Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland; Gillian Welch – review

St John-at-Hackney, London; Hammersmith Apollo, London

The various members of Radiohead frequently perform independently from the band. It is very rare, though, to find Coldplay ("The shit Radiohead, as some people call us," quips Chris Martin) cleaved in two. Tonight's one-off gig in aid of Mencap finds Coldplay's frontman and guitarist cut adrift from bass and drums, playing a 45-minute demi-acoustic set for the charity's annual Little Noise Sessions. We are in the roomy Georgian splendour of the church of St John-at-Hackney, the churchyard of which was used as a thoroughfare during the riots last summer.

Although St John's is vast compared with the Little Noise Sessions' former home, the Union Chapel, this gig still counts as an invasion of personal space by this big, big band. Next month, Coldplay are playing sold-out arenas in support of their most recent album, Mylo Xyloto, and stadiums next summer.

Despite all this activity, it is as yet unclear how the recent sale of their record label, EMI, to Universal, will impact on Coldplay's longer-term future. There are a lot of horses yet to be traded, because Mylo Xyloto theoretically completes Coldplay's current five-album deal. In the short term, however, Coldplay's manager, Dave Holmes, has welcomed the sale. Universal already own Coldplay's publishing.

Martin and Buckland may lack a rhythm section, and Coldplay a clear long-term trajectory, but they don't lack for rhythm. The long, lean, black-clad Martin rarely sits still at the piano tonight, but bounces as though his piano stool were a hot plate. While Coldplay's songs are often derided as plodding by non-fans, live, one of their chief assets is Martin's incessant quivering, which injects vigour into songs that you might have believed were mid-paced.

They open tonight's rapturously received hits-and-newbies set with a roomy, nuanced take on "Yellow", a song that is, by most reckonings, leisurely. All the while, Martin makes like a puppy in need of a walk. He is more honky-tonk than many give him credit for, soaking his shirt through with exertion. The housey piano riff that opens Mylo Xyloto's single, "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall", meanwhile, finds Coldplay spinning surprising influences to rousing effect. It's worth hearing Robyn's version to hear how close to dance music Coldplay sail here. For a band known for their anthemic bombast, tonight's duo set shows how immediate, even offhand, they can still sound. Buckland takes advantage of the sonic possibilities by adding ghostly washes of guitar to Martin's enthusiastically plonked piano.

And then there's the girl with the tambourine. It's not clear who Tambourine Girl is, but she is stood upstairs rattling away, and the acoustics mean that every mild susurration of her instrument during songs such as "Paradise" or a scrappy rendition of "Viva La Vida" is magnified tenfold. You can tell that the nicely brought-up Martin – apparently in the running to be godfather to Jay-Z and Beyoncé's first-born – doesn't want to be rude to her. "This is not an anti-tambourine rant! Don't take it personally!" he enjoins. But he successfully negotiates a percussive ceasefire for "The Scientist".

If you were being sniffy, Tambourine Girl really disrupts the evening, stopping songs in their tracks while a distracted Martin pleads with her. In fact, all the stopping, restarting, swearing and routine self-deprecation ("I'm in trouble with the vicar – eternal trouble," quips Martin) is the kind of carry-on that has fans purring with pleasure, especially those fans whose next date with the band is as distant ciphers at the Emirates Stadium. The only thing that might have improved the evening would have been if Chris Martin had actually played the church's massive organ. (According to the vicar, Father Rob Wickham, Martin expressed an interest.) It all ends in a predictable, but pleasurable sing-along for "Fix You", and the vicar grinning broadly.

A rather different duo took to the stage the previous night across town. Bluegrass-noir outfit Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have gone from being a connoisseur's delight to one of the year's most treasured returnees. Their The Harrow and the Harvest album finally closes an eight-year gap in recordings. Near-legendary live performers, Welch plays banjo, clog-dances in her cowboy boots and strums her guitar, while Rawlings plucks and prangs his way through their two sets, his dazzling playing enhancing rather than overwhelming each song. Songs such as "The Way it Goes" are burnished and lustrous, but surprises include an electrifying third encore cover of "White Rabbit". Then there's the shock of the attendees – Tory MP Louise Mensch (married to Welch's, and indeed Metallica's, manager, Peter Mensch) and her surprise date, the prime minister.

Contributor

Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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