There’s really nothing quite like a Muse concert. The three-piece band from England has, over the last decade, built a dedicated worldwide fan-base and established itself as one of the most iconic live shows out there today. From the moment you walk into the arena, you know it’s going to be different than any other rock show; a massive — and scary — behemoth of a set contraption hangs from the ceiling, a plethora of loudspeakers attached to its limbs, already lined with the nine remote-controlled balloon drones yet to be unleashed around the stadium and hidden screens that lower and raise throughout the performance. The stage it hangs over is far from the traditional fare, consisting of two long catwalks extending to the edges of the floor, meeting in the middle at a large circular rotating stage.
The centralized stage and rotating elements did more than allow the band to sell a full 360 degrees worth of seating, it also more than doubled the amount of barrier space typically next to the stage, giving many more fans a close encounter and ensuring that even those at the edges of the pit were no more than 10 or 11 rows back.
As the lights went dark at their performance in Oracle Arena last Tuesday and the band emerged on stage, the drones from high above detached from the hanging apparatus, flying around the arena and shining searchlights onto the crowd. The band then launched into “Psycho,” a single from its new album Drones, filling the arena with its brash, loud rock and roll, and initiating the insane light show and pyrotechnics that have come to define Muse’s live performances. But it was more than just an over-the-top light show. The concert, like the album, is structured as a story of the dystopian dangers of government drones and the uprising that restores humanity.
That story had many memorable moments, including the almost magical appearance of a 30-foot blackbird spy plane soaring around the arena during “Revolt,” the crowd taking over on vocals during “Starlight” and “Time is Running Out” — the unusual demographic of overwhelmingly 25- to 35-year-old guys made for an interestingly deep chorus — and the culmination of the show in a veritable mountain of confetti and streamers launched during the encore performances of “Mercy” and “Knights of Cydonia.”
Sonically, Muse was in top form — Matt Bellamy’s ringing falsettos and crunching solos, Chris Wolstenholme’s distorted, driving bass lines and Dominic Howard’s pounding rhythms easily filled the arena and kept the pit jumping. They managed to pack in so much technology to border on gimmickry, but confidently treaded the line without stepping over. The rotating stage, when used, allowed Howard to face every direction throughout the show, while Bellamy and Wolstenholme were constantly in motion, sprinting from microphone to microphone around the stage and catwalks and imparting their energy to the crowd.
Ultimately, the band succeeded in something made extremely difficult by their own expansive, multimedia stage production. When every strobe light, every projected image, every remote-controlled drone has a time and a place controlled down to the millisecond by a seemingly unbreakable schedule, the result runs the risk of being an impressive and elaborate show at the expense of spontaneity and connection. In short, it can make the audience feel they and the band are simply part of some larger machine, with each moment choreographed ahead of time.
Yet, somehow, Muse managed to maintain a more personal connection with the audience — though admittedly a somewhat tenuous one. But unlike some bands that simply roll through their songs, with built in transitions and no time for interaction — and certainly not the same level of spectacle — Bellamy would actually talk to the audience every few songs during breaks in the music, refreshingly with a little more depth than just “Hello, Oakland!” Sometimes, a single extra sentence shared with the audience can make the difference between whether the band appears apathetic or genuinely involved, and whether the audience walks away feeling like they were genuinely part of something or simply witnessing it from afar.
In an otherwise exceptional performance, only a few points were left wanting; several of the drones malfunctioned and didn’t launch, which was more than made up for by the unbelievable amounts of confetti blasted during the encore, and the set-list could have been stronger given the deep catalog of Muse hits. But in a sense, the music was only one component of a fairly unforgettable experience.