I once met a woman, a retired gynecologist, in line for my first Muse concert. It was her 40th.
She spent her time following the band, collecting setlists and thrown harmonicas, even meeting the band a few times, for many of the same reasons that Muse has the fervent fanbase that it does — fantastic musicianship, dazzling live shows with sometimes absurd levels of stagecraft, the cohesion between singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy, bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard and tour setlists that change night to night, paying service to deep cuts as well as popular hits.
We waited together in line outside the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego for about 12 hours, and she was right there with me, on the barrier, in the pit, as the mass of sweaty people screamed and jumped its way through Muse’s set. That was in 2013, and for me, it was a transformative experience.
The band’s concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre on Friday had none of that.
It took a while to pinpoint what the problem was, since Bellamy and Co. played brilliantly, as usual. There is a viscerality to Muse’s performances that’s difficult to articulate. Bellamy, for example, has the utmost confidence in his playing, and for all his theatrical jumping, kneeling and spinning, every single note is spot-on, and, more than in most rock shows, you can physically see and hear his every finger motion translate into a sound. Nothing is buried.
Wolstenholme, meanwhile, has a melodic style of bass-playing with lines that are as audible — and sometimes more audible — than Bellamy’s guitar, and on “Hysteria” and other bass-heavy tracks, he gets to flex his skills as the primary melodic line of the song, with his unique set of distortions transforming the bass into a forefront instrument.
Together with Howard, whose drums are mixed loud and who is always given a solo song to himself, the three share the spotlight onstage in a way that, for instance, the trio in opener Thirty Seconds to Mars doesn’t. The latter puts its entire emphasis on Jared Leto as a frontman, but the former doesn’t, despite Bellamy’s massive, swaggering bravado.
So what was the problem then? The band worked its way through a perfectly respectable setlist, and, in fact, the lack of a ridiculous, out-of-this-world stage construction like that of the band’s last tour proved that the band doesn’t need massive flying drones and holograms to make its show engaging.
But while it was easy to appreciate the band’s musicianship Friday night, it was impossible to engage with it. Muse songs engender themselves entirely to being experienced in a pit, and Shoreline Amphitheatre doesn’t have one. That’s perfectly fine for some bands and artists — Train recently had a perfectly enjoyable show there, and Maroon 5 has hit the venue multiple times with great success.
But for bands like Muse, bands that have the power to pump energy into a crowd until it is at a fever pitch, it’s simply the wrong place to perform. Pits compel you to participate in the bombastic music coming from the stage — you’re packed in so tight that when the crowd jumps, you jump. You have no choice in the matter, and you don’t want a choice — the unity of action removes you of the inhibitions you came to the show to abandon. Standing alone at your seat at Shoreline, miles away from the person next to you, is not only isolating, but makes you feel downright silly for pumping your fist and jumping.
It was easy in all this to forget it was even a Muse show, and not some festival set — few people were dancing, and even fewer were singing along, even to “Starlight” and other hits. And that was near the front. Up in the lawn, the disconnect was even greater — some people even fell asleep in the grass.
Muse was involved in that disconnect also; the band seemed to think it was playing not to its fervent fanbase but to casual passersby, airing only its more recognizable hits. Gone was the fun of older tours, where a roulette wheel would be spun to pick a rare, deep cut to play.
A Muse concert can be a transformative experience, but not in amphitheaters, which are the only venues the band is visiting this tour. And while the expenses of an arena tour (and the band’s intense setups) probably can’t be justified without a new album to support, Muse would do right by its fans to visit some smaller venues around the country, to remind us what some rock ‘n’ roll and a pit can do.