Muse are a band that like things on a massive scale, igniting big sounds on the biggest stages, with the kind of big visual effects known only to the likes of Pink Floyd and Daft Punk. That's the Muse comfort zone, but the British trio's special appearance Friday on a much smaller stage at a MySpace Music-presented South By Southwest show traded grand gestures for relative intimacy, without deflating the band's soaring post-punk prog sound.
There were still laser-beams and songs delivered at arena-rock size at the outdoor amphitheater of Stubb's BBQ in Austin, but singer-guitarist Matt Bellamy embraced all that is the ground-level nature of the annual SXSW music festival. "We're feeling good vibes in this town right now," he told a packed crowd.
The band's hour-long set began with the ominous keyboards and revolution rock of "Uprising," a track from last year's The Resistance, calling for "fat cats" to succumb to heart failure while promising, "They will not degrade us, they will not control us..." The band stretched out in a variety of disparate sounds and directions, usually within a single song. Bellamy led the crowd in clapping to the straight-ahead heartbreak beat from the '80s-style pop hit "Starlight" (from 2006's Black Holes and Revelations), but also unfurled the galloping Spanish surf-guitar vibe of "Knights Of Cydonia," sounding like something Dick Dale and ELP might have cooked up together for a Spaghetti Western soundtrack, before Muse slipped into the Queen-like vocal harmonies of "You and I must fight for our rights / You and I must fight to survive."
There was a welcome bit of funk in some of Muse's prog, and occasional, if brief guitar flourishes that echoed Hendrix, Black Sabbath and Aerosmith, demonstrating real hard-rock chops in the anxious playing fingers of Bellamy. The songs were anthemic, melodramatic and performed with all the self-confidence of a consistently platinum-selling act. There are many fans and many critics, and the comparisons to Radiohead are not often meant as a compliment. But Bellamy, bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard demonstrated that the great walls of sound Muse have spent the last decade creating can still connect to an audience at ground level.
Indie-rock quartet Metric opened the show, beginning their set with the crackle and hum of "Twilight Galaxy." The quartet's 45-minute set was fueled on excited postmodern pop and explosive melody. At one point, singer Emily Haines included a few whispery, spectral moments of Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My" as an intro to Metric's "Gimme Sympathy," which asks the contentious pop music question: "After all of this is gone / Who'd you rather be? / The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? / Oh, seriously."
Haines hopped and banged a tambourine in a short sparkly dress during "Help I'm Alive," her voice going from heavy to high and wailing, "My heart keeps beating like a hammer!" She picked up an electric guitar for "Gold Guns Girls" to slash rhythm during the intense soloing of guitarist James Shaw, stirring up a crowd of festival-goers close enough to be reached.
Muse Set List:
"Uprising" (Riff Version)
"Supermassive Black Hole"
"United States of Eurasia"
"Time is Running Out"
"Plug in Baby"
"Knights of Cydonia" (Harmonica Version)
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