[Ed. note: This piece originally ran in our sister publication, Phoenix New Times, and is based on seeing Muse at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona on Saturday, Dec. 5. We republish it here to give L.A. Muse fans a taste of what to expect at the band's Staples Center shows this Friday and Saturday, Dec. 18-19.]
The Muse concert was more than just your typical arena show. Between the round stage, the drone-powered lanterns floating around the arena, and the mostly flawless performance from an impossibly tight, veteran arena rock band, the Muse concert was a full-on audio-visual experience.
Muse, for the uninitiated, is the British trio with the impeccable musicianship that released its first full-length album in 1999. At first drawing comparisons to Radiohead, the band would go on to develop its own blend of electronic- and synth-driven rock music, playing arenas on their home turf before striking across the pond and finding similar success in the United States.
The musical chemistry between singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy, bassist Christopher Wolstenholme, and drummer Dominic Howard is the band's greatest asset. The seemingly telekinetic synthesis between Wolstenholme and Howard provides a rock-steady foundation for the melodramatic vocals of Bellamy and his under-the-radar-good guitar playing.
The band released its seventh studio album, Drones, this summer. It's a concept album complete with conspiratorial, New World Order-type imagery and cinematic flourishes. The concert at Gila River Arena in Glendale Saturday night showed that the band wasn't just content to make the album; the stage show showed the band's ambition extended to the live performance as well.
Here are five things from the Muse concert that left us breathless. Other arena acts should pay close attention, as U2 and Muse have set the bar extremely high for future arena shows.
1. Muse played in the round and it was great.
"In the round" is an old theater term referring to a circular stage in which the audience completely encircles the performers. The actors would project to all corners of the theater throughout the performance. The current Muse tour occurs entirely in the round. Why more arena tours don't do this, I'll never know.
Most concerts happen in a very standard format. At one of the short ends of a rectangular room is a stage, and the audience packs in front until there is no room left. Sight lines to the stage get progressively worse as you get further away from the action.
This is a fine setup for smaller shows. But the problem is that most bands shows simply scale this up when they get popular enough to play arenas. The thing is, arenas aren't built for large-scale concerts. They're built for sporting events, where the field of action occurs up and down the bottom of the arena.
Muse (and U2 in May) solved this problem by actually realizing what arenas do best: provide sight lines for something happening in the middle of the arena. That's where Muse placed a giant circular stage, above which they rigged a massive lighting and catwalk setup from Gila River Arena's rafters. Thin arms extended form the circular stage, allowing Bellamy and Wolstenholme to walk out and play to all corners of the arena. Bellamy sang out of at least seven microphones throughout the night.
Every arena show should play in the round. It works so, so much better than the alternative.
2. Muse used drones to great effect.
The music industry tends to be very slow to embrace new technological trends. Drones will increasingly become more present in everyday life as time goes on, so cheers to Muse for recognizing an artistic application. The band equipped maybe a dozen translucent floating orbs with lights and drone motors and flew them around the arena during various songs throughout the night. At one point the drones lined up above the stage, acting as a floating lighting rig. At another point they orbited like planets around the arena. The concert designers for the Muse show had this creative element — drones — that had very little (possibly no) precedent in a live music setting, and you couldn't help but grin and watch the fun.
3. Creative projections.
At many points throughout the night a set of nearly invisible screens lowered from the catwalks to the stage, onto which various images were projected. The most effective use of this came when Bellamy and Wolstenholme stood at opposite ends of the arena and played while two giant hands with marionette strings on each finger appeared to be controlling the band members. It was a near-perfect melding of the concept album's themes with the live performance.
4, No crowd? No problem.
Metro Phoenix did not show out for Muse. Far more people came out for Sam Smith's much more subdued show. The stadium's upper levels remained empty for most of the night, ironic since the in-the-round performance guaranteed a much better view for the upper levels than at most gigs. Nevertheless, Muse still performed like it was a packed football stadium. Nothing could bring the band down. [Ed. note: This will not be a problem at the first of Muse's two nights at Staples Center, which sold out almost immediately. Tickets for the second night, Dec. 19, are still available.]
5. Politely asking the audience not to use flash during the performance
A disclaimer came through the stadium's speakers before the show, informing the audience they were free to record and photograph as much as they liked throughout the show but to not take use flash. Not like that stopped annoying flashes from happening throughout the night, but I'd hate to imagine what would have happened without the courtesy warning.
Spoiler alert: Set list below.
Plug In Baby
The 2nd Law: Isolated System
(AC/DC's 'Back In Black' riff outro)
Supermassive Black Hole
(The Jimi Hendrix Experience's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" intro)
Time Is Running Out
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Knights of Cydonia
Muse headline the Staples Center with Phantogram Dec. 18-19.