Muse has a reputation as one of today’s best live acts, and they did not disappoint.
In the immortal words of Ice Cube, “Today was a good day.” Not for the reasons he suggests, though.
I arrived in downtown Nashville just after 4:00 pm and, after treating myself to a delicious dinner at Jack’s BBQ, began waiting outside Bridgestone Arena for the doors to open. My fraternity brothers arrived far too late for me to tactfully invite them to my place in the line, so I instead made friends with two Belmont students standing behind me. That’s one of my favorite things about concerts; everyone is there for the same purpose, so you automatically have common ground upon which to start a conversation. As it were, I wound up sticking with these guys in the fourth row the whole night, bonding and talking about music and football and other things, and have two new Facebook friends to show for it. Also in line, much to our delight, was a middle-aged couple that had driven seven hours from Hot Springs, Arkansas to see Muse for the first time. Muse doesn’t generally attract Baby Boomer fans, so I found it remarkable that these two people had become enthralled enough with the band to take such a long trip. Generally, these things work the opposite way; young fans come to love the music of their parents and support those aging artists. To see the status quo reversed was really cool and gave me a sense of intergenerational connection that I have never before truly experienced.
The crowd outside Bridgestone Arena, awaiting the mind explosion within.
The show began at 7:30 with Cage the Elephant, originally from Bowling Green, Kentucky but recently relocated to Nashville. Prior to the show I knew a couple of their songs, namely “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked” and “Back Against the Wall,” but my knowledge of the band was sorely limited. After tonight, my opinion of Cage has changed, mostly for the better but with some reservations.
I was unsurprised but somewhat disappointed that “Ain’t No Rest” remains my favorite Cage song. It has a very different sound from the rest of their body of work due to the prominent slide guitar riff and relative lack of distortion compared to their other work. I think it would have sounded even cooler, though, done acoustically. It would have provided a nice break from the constant energy of the set and made the performance more interesting, while still rocking pretty hard. You can see an acoustic version of the song here; see if you agree with me.
Cage the Elephant was energetic but didn’t strike me as an extraordinary act.
The rest of Cage the Elephant’s set was fairly standard indie punk with southern rock and rap influence, sort of a hybrid between the thudding distorted riffs of Wolfmother, the minimalism of the Black Keys, and the attitude of Rage Against the Machine. Unfortunately, while the music was performed well, it really didn’t excite me as anything extraordinary; for a band said to be a contender for the next great American rock outfit, Cage’s performance disappointed me. I’m not entirely sure what it was about it. Maybe it sounded too generic, or maybe there wasn’t that element of exceptional musicality that I love in bands (remember, I see the world through Rush-colored lenses). One aspect of the performance that was fantastic, however, was the energy of lead singer Matt Shultz. He was dressed like a sort of Mick Jagger-turned-glam rock, wearing tight white pants, lipstick, and eye shadow. This appearance foreshadowed a similarly eccentric, wild performance, as Shultz twirled the microphone on its cord, staggered into the faces of his bandmates, and crowd surfed twice, among other antics. His personality alone makes this group’s live act worth watching, and definitely fits the role of lead singer for a five-piece band; It’s near impossible for five vivacious and bombastic musicians to fit on one stage, so these groups have to develop this sort of arrangement of personas. For the most part the rest of the band fit their roles: a rhythm guitarist who uses enthusiasm to make up for his lack of exciting contributions to the music; a bass player who stoically delivers the low frequencies without making a spectacle; and a drummer who does his thing. My only complaint was that the lead guitarist never really moved, remaining lifeless even during his solos.
Perhaps Cage the Elephant will become wildly popular with the release of their upcoming album, Melophobia, in October. If so, it will be on the shoulders of Shultz’s craziness and pseudo-rapped lyrics, which actually go well with the thrumming bar chords pervasive in the band’s music and are not hard to sing along to. For me, though, Cage has not yet found that sound that will distinguish them from the rest of the burgeoning alt rock scene, and must find some aspect of their music, performance, or both that allows them to rise above the fray. Although I think they’re already above The Fray–Matt Shultz doesn’t whine.
A nice shot of Matt Shultz and his glorious white pants.
The show really started, though, when Muse took the stage. They have a reputation for incredible live performances, and they did not disappoint. Even if the band wasn’t performing live the light show itself would have been a spectacle. Among the stage’s cooler aspects were a pyramid of LEDs that twice enveloped the band, a piano that rose from the ground, a rotating drum kit that I found quite familiar, and an obligatory outcropping for Matthew Bellamy (and occasionally Chris Wolstenholme) to move closer to the crowd.
The music was everything I expected and more. Check here for the full setlist, which I thought was a phenomenal selection. There were really no bad choices, though the more diehard fans I talked to were a bit sad that the band only played one song from Origin of Symmetry. To that I say this is a tour in support of The 2nd Law, not Origin of Symmetry. And the songs from The 2nd Law were awesome live. I was fascinated by Wolstenholme’s touchscreen bass on “Madness,” which enabled him to play the track’s signature synth-bass riff by tapping and dragging his fingers on his instrument. “Supremacy” was a fantastically energetic opener and “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” achieved something I previously thought impossible: a guitar, bass, and drums playing dubstep music. It was also cool to hear Wolstenholme sing “Liquid State,” a track about his battle with alcoholism that could become Muse’s version of the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain” (though Wolstenholme sings much better than Phil Lesh). The undisputed star of the show, however, was Matthew Bellamy and his superhuman voice. He commanded the crowd without having to resort to insane levels of energy; he shredded on guitar, jammed out on piano, and led the audience with his microphone in anthems such as “Uprising” and “Knights of Cydonia.” “Madness” was probably the best overall display of Bellamy’s skills, as he stepped out onto the outcrop and serenaded the crowd before and after nailing the short but emphatic guitar solo note for note. That being said, my favorite song of the night was “Hysteria,” as it featured the most complex bass line and the best overall blend of the Muse at its best: powerful drums and bass-driven riffs punctuated by Bellamy’s signature falsetto and bursts of guitar wizardry. The icing on the cake was that Bellamy played “The Star-Spangled Banner” to lead into the song as a clear homage to Jimi Hendrix, one of his major influences.
Matthew Bellamy enchants the crowd with his electric falsetto and Freddy Mercury-esque range.
Yes, Muse was mind-blowing, and the crowd was bouncing and dancing and singing throughout, adding to the atmosphere. That being said, there are a few criticisms I have of the show. One is that the band did not work together onstage nearly as well as they could have. The music was tight and each player was clearly in his respective zone, but with a three-man outfit I like to see some more working together. Not once did Bellamy and Wolstenholme come together, nor did any of the band members really interact with one another during the show. The closest they came was when Bellamy joined Dominic Howard on the rotating drum platform during “Liquid State.” And while Bellamy was electric as a frontman, a little back-and-forth between him and his bandmates would have displayed their close connection and humanized the performance a bit more. One of my friends described Bellamy to me as a “demi-god,” and indeed he came across as divine; but a great frontman and singer should be able to connect with his audience on a deeper, more personal level. This leads into another interesting point raised by my friend Clay Hatridge, who after the show declared the show “so close to perfect.” When I asked him what could have been better, he said he felt the show lacked a message, something that was necessary if Muse wanted to present themselves as true artists. After some discussion, I came to realize the root of this feeling, which lies in Muse’s lyrics. So many of their songs, particularly recently, deal with an us-vs.- the world theme; songs like “Uprising,” “Resistance,” Supremacy,” and “Knights of Cydonia” all come across as very powerful protests against “them.” But who are “they?” Against what is Muse protesting? I suppose one could say that the point is for the listener to internalize the message and apply it to whatever challenge they might be currently facing, but at a concert, there isn’t really a challenge to be faced, unless you are the event security and someone has had too much to drink. The songs are anthemic, yes, but when they are directed at nothing, their words ring hollow. While Muse is incredibly talented musicians and their love songs, such as “Starlight,” can touch the soul, their protest music doesn’t really serve a purpose other than to amp up the crowd in a rage against a nonexistent “man.” Still, it is great music and should be recognized as such.
All in all, last night’s concert probably ranks as the second-greatest that I have ever attended, behind Rush on the Time Machine tour in 2011. From the friends I made to the music that was played, the experience was unforgettable.
This weekend is far from over, though; be sure to tune in to The VU Backstage tomorrow at 9pm central for Eli Teplin’s performance and interview, and like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter to keep up with all the latest in the Vanderbilt and Nashville music scenes.