Ever see a rock show that you really wanted to hate, but just couldn’t bring yourself to do so? That describes my reaction to the most recent Muse show I saw at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. on February 1. I wanted to write an overview of the entire show the moment I walked out of the arena, and I have posted some pictures from the show, but I waited until now to write this because I needed some time to formulate my thoughts.
First of all, as many of you know, Muse is my favorite modern rock band. This is my second time seeing them at the Verizon Center, the first being on September 11, 2013, the day after my seventeenth birthday. It is also the third time I’ve seen Muse overall. The very first time I saw them was at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville on October 23, 2010, during the Resistance Tour, and I was instantly hooked on the band. I had heard their albums The Resistance
and Black Holes and Revelations
before then, but it was seeing them in a live environment that really got me, because that’s a big part of Muse’s appeal. They put on an amazing show, both in the superb visuals and the fact that they actually sound better live than in the studio, and not many modern bands can claim to that.
Fast forward to 2015, when I found out that they would be returning to the Verizon Center in February 2016, and I instantly ordered five tickets. It would be me, my dad, and three friends. I eventually wound up choosing Alissa Reeves and Hoshin Amara Hunt, two people who had work with me on music videos, as well as Hoshin’s husband Marc.
That’s when I start hearing a lot of cynicism about the band’s newest tour. People on the message boards at muse.mu, who had previously praised this new tour’s return to the band’s rock roots, now were suddenly criticizing everything from the setlists to the stage design to lead singer Matthew Bellamy’s voice. There was even a controversy about one clip that allegedly saw Bellamy miming the guitar and lip-syncing, but that turned out to be fake. With all the negativity in the fanbase, I was suddenly regretting buying tickets to the concert.
I should note that I don’t go to rock concerts in D.C. often because it’s such a long drive from Charlottesville. It takes three hours to get there if traffic is okay, and another three hours to get back. This time, there was the added challenge of traveling in three different cars and having to keep track of each other. So when I go up to D.C. to see a show, it’s usually something I really
want to see, like Foo Fighters or Paul McCartney.
After driving to the hotel and taking the Metro to the arena, X Ambassadors were just finishing up their set. Now I don’t know much about X Ambassadors, except that they had this hit that’s big on the radio and the pop charts, “Renegades,” but from the two songs I heard by them they seem like a pretty solid rock act, and it made sense for them to be opening for a band like Muse. As I said, I only saw them perform two songs, so I can’t offer a fair judgment.
Next thing I will talk about is the stage setup for the show. With Muse’s shows, they never disappoint on the stage design, whether it involves giant satellite dishes
, large towers that lift them off the ground
, a pyramid of screens that covers them
, or a giant power plant with smokestacks that puff out the occasional plume of fire
. With the Drones World Tour, they’re venturing into new territory by playing the entire show in the round. The only bands I can think of to use that stage setup are Metallica, Yes, U2, and Def Leppard; the last band I mentioned also made their tour into the successful concert video Live: In the Round, In Your Face
. (Interestingly enough, Def Leppard’s two most successful albums were produced by Mutt Lange, who also produced Muse’s latest album, Drones
The reason that in-the-round concerts aren’t often done by bands is because there’s the all too constant risk of facing away from the audience. Luckily, Muse has managed to prevent this risk by having a rotating stage, so that each member is facing the audience at certain points of the show. The stage didn’t rotate through the entire show. It was promised that it would be going at the speed of about one rotation per minute, but that didn’t happen; instead, some of the songs had the stage rotating one way, others had it rotating a different way, and others didn’t have it rotating at all. There were also two catwalks on either side of the stage.
Of course, the stage design wasn’t the only thing impressive about the show. As the show got closer to starting, security guards dressed in riot police uniforms surrounded the stage while N.W.A music played. When the show finally started, the title track from the album Drones
played while—you guessed it—around ten or so rounded drones flew out into the audience
. I had heard that there would be drones at the show beforehand; it only seemed to go with the concept of the album.
The crowd roared with applause as Matthew Bellamy played the opening riff of “Psycho,” and the rest of the band entered the stage wearing matching black uniforms. And then, something very strange happened: the applause died down, and I could see phones being pulled out all throughout the audience. Seriously, this was shaping up to be one of the worst crowds I have ever seen at a rock show. It was like nobody cared that there was a band playing on the stage and were just there to take selfies and send text messages, which makes no sense to me; if you’re going to pay for your own tickets at a rock show, the least you could do is express your enjoyment.
This continued straight into the second song, “Dead Inside,” which despite what many people say actually translates really well to a live environment, though Bellamy had to sing some notes lower than they were on the album. That’s one complaint about this tour that I do kind of see; he doesn’t always hit all the notes the same way he did in the studio and sometimes has to sing them in falsetto or transpose them to a lower key, but he hit every note on key and they still sounded amazing, so it wasn’t a huge problem for me. The third song was “Hysteria” from the Absolution
album. Always a favorite, though I can’t help but wonder if they play it too often. This time, they ended the song by jamming to the riffs from Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
So far, this show was turning out just to be okay. Still, an average Muse show is still a Muse show, which means it’s still magnificent. This is the point when the show went from average to great: the fourth song was “Map of the Problematique” from Black Holes and Revelations
, which is a great song live, and from what I understand is quite rare in Muse’s recent setlists, so it was nice to hear that. Reminded me of when they played it as the second song at the first Muse show I saw in Charlottesville. They ended the song by playing the riff from their 2009 collaboration with The Streets, “Who Knows Who.”
This is when the show went from great to amazing. Bellamy stepped up to the microphone and pointed to a small cluster of fans in the front row, saying that the next song was for the hardcore fans that have supported the band since the beginning. I began to wonder which song they would play. That’s when Bellamy started to play the opening seven-string riff of “Citizen Erased,” and I nearly screamed my vocal cords out. For those who don’t know, Citizen Erased is a fan favorite song from the band’s second album, Origin of Symmetry
, that the band rarely ever plays live, especially not in the US. The fact that they were playing this song was just amazing for me. It was definitely the best part of the show for me. It was funny, too, because halfway through the song the band just stopped playing and Bellamy grabbed a drink of water. For a second, I thought that his guitar stopped working, which would have been a shame, but it turns out he was just teasing the audience. And then he finished the song off on the piano as he always does. The piano appeared on the opposite catwalk from us, so I didn’t get a clear view of it, but do you think that ruined the song for me? Hell no it didn’t.
When they finished Citizen Erased, the show was pretty much over for me. There was nothing at that point that could make me hate the show. They could have covered Justin Bieber and I still would have loved the show. The next song was the mini-track “Isolated System” from The 2nd Law
, which I’m still not sure why they played, as it was mostly filler and was only an excuse for Dom to show off his new electric drums. However, this also led to a new visual aspect, as large transparent curtains dropped along the catwalks and displayed visuals on the sides. Isolated System then led straight into the next song, “The Handler,” which made use of the projected visuals, most notably when bassist Christopher Wolstenholme stood on the catwalk and played his bass while the visuals projected him being controlled by puppet strings
. That was pretty cool, and The Handler sounded good live.
At this point, the drones themselves had been used a little less than I would have expected, but they were released into the audience once again for “Supermassive Black Hole” and “Starlight,” both of which I assume are now staples for live shows, like Hysteria. For Supermassive Black Hole, Bellamy started the song by playing the riff to Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.” Starlight oddly enough used the prelude from The 2nd Law
’s “Survival.” It left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed, as this was the first song in the setlist where Bellamy neglected to play an instrument, instead walking across the catwalk holding the microphone and waving his arms around like Bono, leaving the guitar duties on the song to touring member Morgan Nicholls. This was something he did during the 2nd Law Tour, too. It was annoying there and it’s still annoying now. In the end, however, the song was saved by some large black balloons being released into the audience, and confetti flying everywhere when they popped, similarly to the “Hullaballoons” released during “Plug In Baby” when I saw them in 2010. These balloons didn’t float towards us, and many of them just floated to the stage, where the band popped them themselves
The joy of Citizen Erased was starting to wear off at this point, but they saved themselves just in time by pulling out another rare classic, “Apocalypse Please.” So this wasn’t really the rarest of songs—it had been performed quite a few times in 2015 and 2016—but before then, it hadn’t been played since 2007, so rare really is relative in this case. It was amazing hearing it live, nonetheless, with the pounding drum beat and piano, especially since it’s from my favorite Muse album, Absolution
. But I can’t help but wonder if Wolstenholme’s bass overpowered the piano at some points. Maybe it was just where I was sitting, or maybe it was the overall sound mixing. I don’t know; before this song, Bellamy had only played piano at the end of Citizen Erased, so I can understand if they didn’t have the proper levels for it.
Next, Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard played a rock jam while the stage spun around. They always seem to have one of these jams every tour since 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations Tour. The one this most reminded me of, though, was the one played in the Resistance Tour (again), though maybe it was just because of the spinning stage and Howard and Wolstenholme rocking out.
The next song was “Madness,” and while it might not be my favorite Muse song ever, I can see why they play it. It is
the band’s second most popular song in the states, so they kind of have to play it. Not that it’s a bad song by any means. Bellamy 100% nailed the vocals and guitar solo during it, and Howard this time did half the drumming on his electric kit. No LED sunglasses or mugging the camera this time, though they did lower the screens next to the stage and project visuals on them. They followed Madness with “Resistance,” another song that’s pretty much a staple of live shows. To put it in perspective, when I say that these songs are staples, I mean that I’ve seen them played at all three Muse shows I attended.
By this time, with two of the band’s more poppy songs in a row, I was starting to forget the political theme of the album and tour. The band next followed it with “JFK,” a song from Drones
that featured a speech by John F. Kennedy, following it immediately with… “Reapers.” Normally I would have expected it to be followed by “Defector,” as that was the track order on the album, but I had no complaint with it being followed by Reapers, because that song sounds amazing
live. At this point in the show, most of the audience had put away their cellphones, and with this song, many of them started headbanging and enjoying themselves like me. (I jokingly like to believe that they saw how I was reacting to the show and were embarrassed that they weren’t doing the same.) And the ending… dear god, the ending of Reapers sounds amazing, just how the band goes full heavy metal, with Wolstenholme screaming “Here come the drones!”
Unfortunately, the mood is killed pretty quickly with “Time Is Running Out,” another staple of Muse’s live shows. I know, I never thought I’d say that a song from Absolution
killed the mood set by a newer song, but, well, Time Is Running Out is kind of poppy and upbeat, while Reapers is so… big. It’s hard to explain without making me sound like I dislike Time Is Running Out, which I don’t. I love it. I also enjoy the song that followed it, “Uprising,” though here they did something kind of different with it: Bellamy spent the first half of the song without a guitar and waved his hands around like Bono. I don’t really know how to feel about guitarless Uprising. It seems like cheating to rely on preprogrammed synths just so the lead singer can be lazy and not play the guitar part, though Bellamy did pick up the guitar for the solo and the outro. Again, don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing the song at all. Perhaps it’s just the order of the setlist. Maybe if this song had been the encore or something.
Next, we get The Globalist, which is their 2015 answer to Citizen Erased, and tops it for their longest individual track. The screens surrounded the band again, and visuals displayed on it that made it look absolutely massive. The song was performed well, with Wolstenholme taking over rhythm guitar duties on the first part of the song while Bellamy played slide guitar. During the second part, the most hard rock part of the song, a new rocket-shaped (or airplane-shaped; I couldn’t tell) drone emerged from behind the stage
and flew over the audience. Finally, Bellamy finished the song on piano, and the audience swayed along to the music, tired out from headbanging. It really was a great performance, but perhaps it would have worked better if they had played Time Is Running Out and Uprising first, then Reapers, and then The Globalist.
But then by far the strangest setlist choice happened: they played the song Drones again. It felt like a Déjà vu. The normal drones floated up over the audience yet again, and it wasn’t just they played a little of the song; they played the entire thing. Couldn’t they have played the Drill Sergeant intro or something at the beginning, so they wouldn’t have to repeat the same prerecorded song twice?
Before I had time to question that, the band returned to the stage and made a dedication to… someone. With Bellamy’s accent, I couldn’t really understand what he said, but I do specifically recall him saying that the US tour was too short and that they would be back next year. Hey, Matt, if you’re reading this right now, any hope for another Charlottesville show? The next song was Mercy, a song that they’ve been trying so hard to make into an audience favorite. Honestly, I can’t see it becoming one, but they certainly tried. Around the middle of the song, confetti cannons fired around the stage and streamers were released. I didn’t wind up catching any of it; most of it got caught in the lighting, anyway.
Finally, once Wolstenholme started playing Ennio Morricone’s “Man with a Harmonica,” I knew that the show was over. This was it, the final song, “Knights of Cydonia” from Black Holes and Revelations
. Many will argue that the Man with a Harmonica intro is starting to become a little tired, but I am not one of those people. And I will also say this: Knights of Cydonia works better as a concert outro than it does in the middle of the show, like what happened when I saw Muse in 2013. After it was over, the band left the stage, Howard threw his drumsticks into the audience and made his obligatory “You’re awesome, we’ll see you again soon” comment, and I left the concert feeling probably the happiest I’ve been in a while.
Going back to what I said at the beginning, I was prepared to dislike this show solely based on what the Muse message boards were saying. But in all honesty, I think this was probably the best Muse show I’ve seen, simply for the amazing setlist. I mean, there were some dumb choices, and Chris didn’t have any songs where he sang lead, which I did kind of like about the 2013 show, but I’ll put it this way: when I saw Muse in 2010, I got “Undisclosed Desires.” In 2013, I got “Follow Me” and “Guiding Light.” At this show, not only did I get Map of the Problematique, Apocalypse Please, and Reapers, but I also got to see Citizen Erased, something which if you see live, then you know just how lucky you are. And hey, it’s also an improvement on the last Muse show I saw in that Bellamy didn’t forget any lyrics this time.
All in all, I don’t know what other rock shows I will be seeing in 2016, but this is already the best one so far.Setlist:
1. “Drones” + “Psycho”
2. “Dead Inside”
3. “Interlude” + “Hysteria” + “Heartbreaker” riff + “Back in Black” outro
4. “Map of the Problematique” + “Who Knows Who” riff
5. “Citizen Erased”
6. “The 2nd Law: Isolated System” (Shortened)
7. “The Handler”
8. “Voodoo Child” intro + “Supermassive Black Hole”
9. “Prelude” + “Starlight”
10. “Intro” + “Apocalypse Please”
14. “JFK” + “Reapers”
15. “Time Is Running Out”
17. “The Globalist” + “Drones” repriseEncore:
19. “Man with a Harmonica” + “Knights of Cydonia”