It's not often the words "Coldplay" and "surprising" inhabit the same sentence. After all, even if some of the criticism they endure is unfair, Chris Martin's band is widely dismissed as being as safe and efficient as stadium rock gets, pushing the buttons of the masses in time-honoured but clichéd fashion. So it's a genuine pleasure to report that there is something so magical, so unexpected and so innovative about the opening minutes of their current world tour that it is almost a plot-spoiler to reveal it. So, I won't, save to say that it involves lighting and audience participation - and it will be fantastic if they repeat the trick on December 31 in Abu Dhabi.
If not, well, it won't be a serious issue. Perhaps Coldplay's main problem on record is a lack of personality - it is difficult to congratulate Martin on such insightful lyrics as "I turn my music up, I got my records on", as heard on their comeback single Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall. But played live, as the kick drum thuds around the arena, that particular song not only makes perfect sense, but everything Coldplay does is ramped up, energised and, with Martin's enthusiasm bordering on the tiring to watch, imbued with character and charisma.
In short, they pull off the not inconsiderable task of making their live show massive and intimate in almost the same instant. In Manchester recently, back-catalogue anthems such as Yellow and Fix You were blasted out in the manner of a band who perhaps are sick of the constant jibes that they are insipid and bland. But at the same time, Martin went well beyond asking the crowd if they were OK. He thanked them profusely for buying tickets, for giving up their evening to come, for joining in. He changed the lyrics of songs to speak directly to the audience. When he messed up a few chords, he stopped, apologised, and started again - as if he were performing in a tiny bar venue rather than an arena. Perhaps such antics are all part of the act, but they're hugely endearing. It means that even those who, quite bizarrely, watched proceedings from behind the open stage felt involved. I should know. I was one of them.
Of course, such stagecraft has been honed over a decade of filling arenas and headlining festivals. It means Coldplay is canny enough not to scare the audience with loads of new songs from the band's fifth album Mylo Xyloto - in Manchester they played roughly half of it. But what they do showcase reveals exactly why the record is so uneven. Live, the raucous Major Minus sounds unhinged and ragged - and is all the more interesting for that - but the tracks that display a hitherto undiscovered love for R&B and chart pop (specifically Paradise) are indistinguishable from a million other chart acts. There's the sense that, five albums in, Coldplay is not quite sure what kind of band it would like to be.
Undoubtedly, when Martin is hammering away behind a piano during fantastically epic versions of Politik and Clocks, Coldplay makes perfect sense. It is then that they make the job of being in a multimillion-selling pop band seem like both the most normal and the most amazing thing in the world. With Grammy nominations and sell-out tours in prospect for 2012, it's likely to be a happy new year for Coldplay - in more ways than one.