Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Muse delivers fitting grand, apocalyptic arena show

Readers and music fans often ask why Charlotte doesn’t get certain tours or certain bands. Tuesday night’s phenomenal concert by British arena rock trio Muse is a good example. The entire upper tier balcony was blacked out, although the lower bowl was packed. While I don’t know if those upper seats were ever for sale (certainly they would've been made available had the lower half sold out), it means that thousands missed one of the best rock shows of the year. Muse tickets don’t seem to be selling that well in larger markets either though. Tickets for tonight’s show at Atlanta’s similar size Gwinnett Center, where I saw them play opening night of their 2010 US tour for a sold out crowd, are still available, for instance.
Opening act Cage the Elephant (pictured below) was well paired with Muse. Like Muse early on, the Kentucky-based band doesn’t have a distinct identity which allows it to expand and grow. It riffed on Pixies-style surf guitar on one track, raved through punky abandon the next, and hit on varied genres and inspirations - Brit pop, White Stripes, Southern rock, dark psychedelia, and fidgety garage punk.
Vocalist Matthew Schultz told the crowd it was a special night. His brother, guitarist Brad Schultz, was not with the band but home welcoming his new baby while bassist Daniel Tichenor’s brother Joe handled Brad’s guitar duties.  
Cage the Elephant, who sold out Amos’ not long ago, could possibly steal a headliner’s thunder opening for a lesser band than Muse. The crowd was obviously familiar with tracks like “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” and “Shake Me Down,” but Schultz, who strutted like Mick Jagger, worked hard to win them over. During its final song Schultz dove into the audience, his microphone chord trailing behind him from the stage where a tech hurriedly fished him more line. He crawled across throngs of bodies in the general admission section before pulling himself to his feet where he teetered on hands and shoulders as the music paused for a few moments. He basked in the crowd (see above) before falling backward into their arms as the song kicked back in.
Muse hit the stage with all the grandeur and bombast you’d expect from a band whose songs sound like the score to the apocalypse. The stage turned red, smoke shot in tall puffs from the floor, and a cage of screens lowered as the operatic dubstep nod “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” served as Muse’s dramatic entrance music. The trio with additional touring keyboardist Morgan Nicholls appeared on stage as the block of screens rose before the group kicked into the equally futuristic “Supremacy.”
Although Muse’s latest album, “The 2nd Law” plays somewhat like a sci-fi rock opera with orchestral strings and operatic backing vocals, the show didn’t play out like theater. It was very much a rock show with spectacular lights and production that kept the crowd engaged throughout.
Angled screens, which looked like half a small football stadium, encircled the band while graphics, words, lights, and footage danced below, above, and around the group. Vocalist Matthew Bellamy (pumping his first in top photo) channeled Freddie Mercury on the funky Queen-like “Panic Station,” but his falsetto and guitar work often echoed Prince and Eddie Van Halen. He later conjured Hendrix wailing on “The Star Spangled Banner" at the tip of the stage. Muse certainly doesn’t go for mediocrity. The artists it channels through its massive, global anthems are only the biggest in history. And the huge production is a match for the music’s size and scope.
New songs from “The 2nd Law” were met with as much excitement as older ones like “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Super Massive Blackhole” (from 2003 and 2006, respectively). The psychedelic Western “Knights of Cydonia” brought the house down (it was the encore when I saw Muse before) mid-way through the 20-song set. Muse’s evolution through 2003’s “Time is Running Out” (a massive sing-along played late in the set) to 2009’s futuristic “The Resistance” to 2012’s electronic “Follow Me” and methodically trippy “Madness” (another big sing-along) is apparent. Its tracks have gradually become bigger, grander, more complicated, more electronic, and more theatrical.
That apocalyptic feel peaked as a film of people running down the beach from blocky, triangle forms that jutted from the collapsing ground - seemingly the digital world cannibalizes the human one - introduced “Uprising.” As the crowd jumped, fists raised singing “They will not control us/We will be victorious” I felt like it was more than just a song. It was like the local crowd was swept up in the spirit, singing in response to the turnout or to politicians in Raleigh - we won’t go back, we’ll turn out for good music, we’ll show the rest of the country we’re not decades behind!  
Instead of pretending to leave the stage, Bellamy called his bandmates to the stage before the crowd could break into chants of “encore.” As the first notes of “Starlight” hit the African-American man behind me lit into an ear-piercing scream that would’ve been at home at a Justin Bieber concert. In retrospect I guess the show warranted such uninhibited praise. Muse definitely is in the running for best contemporary live rock band.