Saturday, March 13, 2010

Muse Fails to Fully Inspire

Concert Review

w/Silversun Pickups
United Center, Chicago
March 12, 2010

I first saw, heard and liked Muse before I or very many people, certainly in America, knew who they were. Ten years ago this month, on a day when the University of Wisconsin coincidentally made the Final Four for the first time in decades, I ventured to the Dane County Coliseum in Madison to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers with the Foo Fighters opening. I didn't know there would be a third band truly opening the show, and although they were quite young and clearly derivative of Radiohead--with a lead singer who sounded much like Thom Yorke--I really liked them.

So I later learned the band was named Muse and I bought & enjoyed their debut album, Showbiz. I've since bought all their subsequent albums and--as I'm quite fascinated by bands that become huge in England but remain largely unknown or much less popular in the U.S, from The Jam to Blur to Stereophonics to Razorlight--I took note as Muse steadily built a sizable stateside fan base.

But while each of their albums has had a few good songs, I've kind of felt their popularity kept growing roughly in reverse order of their artistic merit. So now that they have, somewhat surprisingly (as many of my friends still have no idea who they are) reached the level of selling out the United Center--keep in mind that in the UK, they sold out Wembley Stadium twice (over 140,000 tickets) on their last tour--I felt that I had to see them, but didn't even love them when I saw them at the Aragon in 2006.

As I kind of expected, last night's show was a mixed bag. I don't fully consider it a good thing that "arena rock" has largely become a thing of the past, and there are several worse bands that American teens to twentysomethings could have latched onto. And with an elaborate stage set up, laser lights galore and myriad sonic references--which long ago moved beyond Radiohead--Muse reminded me of many a show gone by at which I burned myself in trying to hold up a Bic lighter. But though they riffed on Zeppelin and AC/DC, and sounded at times like Queen, Rush, Def Leppard, and other arena rock icons, Muse isn't nearly as good as any of those bands.

At their best, and last night that meant a strong opening, about 6-8 really good songs (setlist here) and perhaps 40 minutes (out of 100) worth of truly impressive music and visuals, Muse can be quite enjoyable, though still a musical pastiche and not particularly meaningful. The rest of the time, they play a lot of songs that sound somewhat alike, put forth a bloated hodge-podge of other people's ideas--including a cover of Nina Simone's Feeling Good--and represent the worst of prog rock excess.

Plus, without ever saying hello to the crowd, barely a thank you until the end, and playing much of the show on individual risers, the band kept quite a distance from each other as well as from the crowd. This might have been partially due to being in the very last row at the top of the UC, but there seemed to be something very cold and calculated about the whole affair.

I imagine many in the arena loved it, having seen some comments accompanying the video below on YouTube, and I'm glad they did. But I have seen much better, even from Muse itself. (Opener Silversun Pickups might be a decent band, but it was hard to discern their live merits with unfamiliar tunes lost among the UC's muddled sound mix.)

This is a video of Muse from 2000, playing a song called Fillip from their first album. They didn't play it last night, but it remains my favorite of theirs.

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