The rock band's intimate show included speeches from actress and activist America Ferrera and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors.

Few holidays elicit such a jarring mix of heartfelt and ham-fisted remembrances as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an annual 24-hour period where leaders who have spent their lives fighting for social justice, along with those who stand against what Dr. King himself fought for, share similar praise for the late Civil Rights leader.

So, when a rock band made up of four English white guys announces a concert to honor MLK’s work, it’s hard not to be at least a bit skeptical of their true motives. But Coldplay’s intimate set Monday night in Hollywood in support of Reform L.A. Jails was an exemplar of a major act shining a light on a worthy social justice initiative, one that King himself advocated for: prison reform

Coldplay in concert at the Palladium, Los Angeles, USA - 20 Jan 2020
Credit: Christopher Polk/Shutterstock

Granted, Chris Martin and company did little espousing on their part. Instead, they left that to a handful of on-the-ground activists who have direct knowledge of the issues at hand. Included on the evening’s opening lineup were up-and-coming rapper Bobby Gonz, actress and activist America Ferrera, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, and Compton MC Boogie, each of whom brought their own unique experience to the festivities.

“This is way too rock and roll for me — I found a leather jacket to wear for you,” joked Ferrera in a speech to help open the show, adding that “Coldplay have been incredible allies in the effort to reform the criminal justice system in Los Angeles.” The Superstore star went on to explain that at a recent event for her organization, Harness (a group that looks to connect artists with activists), members of the band walked up to her and asked what they could do to help. That led to the announcement of a one-off concert in support of Reform L.A.

Later, Cullors delved a bit further into Reform L.A.’s mission, along with America’s prison industrial complex, connecting it back to King’s legacy, as well as her own. “Today is one of my favorite holidays,” she said. “I grew up with this idea that MLK wasn’t a human being and was this big deity. But I would learn quickly that King was criminalized. That King went to jail 30 times for standing up for what he believed in.” Cullors added that King’s work led to what she does now, organizing support for prison reform and, more recently, supporting a local ballot measure that asks for greater accountability of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. She also requested that those in attendance “not just be entertained tonight but hold space in your heart for people in our community.”

That theme continued briefly once Coldplay hit the stage, as the band made sure to thank those who shared their work earlier in the evening, and for those who bought tickets (the proceeds all went directly to Reform L.A.). From there, the band stuck mostly to music, playing a 90-minute set comprised of their eclectic new album Everyday Life.

Later, Martin asked for an audience member to pass him a single balloon that had been floating in the crowd. “What we are doing now is very different from what we were doing at the Rose Bowl,” noted Martin, referring to the last time Coldplay performed in Los Angeles. “[That show] had fireworks and confetti and we sweated and had singalong to singalong and tonight we are reduced one solitary balloon. All of you are witness to the least amount of special effects we have had. And we couldn’t even afford this; one of you brought this.” The comment was a nice nod to the band’s decision to abstain from touring until they can find a more eco-friendly approach (joked Martin, the Palladium show was one of only five intimate gigs on their “world tour”).

The band eventually peppered in a few older hits, including the triumphant “Viva La Vida,” a waltz-like reimagining of “Fix You,” and a more faithful version of Parachutes era single “Sparks.” Martin even attempted “Amsterdam” after multiple fans in the crowd requested it. But he abandoned it half-way after forgetting the words; “This is embarrassing please don’t tell anyone about this for f—’s sake,” he said (sorry, Chris).

But it was the Everyday Life tracks that really brought things to life, from the choir-backed “Church” to the soft and heartbreaking piano ballad “Daddy” to the bar-stomper singalong “Orphans.” Eventually, the band brought out the legendary Femi Kuti and members of his group to perform the song “Na Their Way Be That.” In clumsier hands, it might have reeked of cultural appropriation, but here it felt fitting for a night dedicated to a greater cause.

It’s easy in an age of endless cynicism to throw a healthy dose at the world’s most earnest band, but what they did at the Palladium was admirable, an attempt to put their money where their mouth is toward a good cause. Hopefully more bands of their stature do the same.

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