How many tiffs may have resulted between Lolla-going couples from the Brit pop scheduling dilemma tonight? No one knows, but my money was always on the baroque, glam, futurists (and, yes, 2011 Grammy winners) Muse to put on the kind of big, brilliant, laser-beam-laden show that Lollapalooza dreams and memories are made of. Maybe that's because I saw Coldplay on its first tour, or maybe I'm just continually stunned by my own high toleration for an overly ambitious band like Muse. The only band playing this weekend that taps into the majesty of rock goliaths like Queen—albeit in a sleek modern update and comes away with something that's true to 2011, Lolla was Muse's fest to lose going in.
Muse are the overachievers, the star pupils, the smart guys that aren't conflicted by fame and fortune—but they can also rock some complexity that's not a metal rehash or plodding, dullwitted prog. Yet, Muse are total muzos—guys that own new pieces of music technology we can't conceive of, but can also rattle off classical obscurities on a ukulele without batting an eye. But Muse are muzos, that in concert, and in what I think is a generous, epic, but also populist kind of rock music, can completely make you forget what muzos they are because they're just a dazzling good time.
They've got no compulsion to make their music too difficult to understand—which isn't to say its simple or without high concept, just that its grandiosity makes no apologies. Radiohead may be critical darlings and deeply intriguing, but Muse are the guys with the LED lights on their guitars. Which band really gets it? Hard to say, but Muse, far from tortured with their recent massive success in the States, were the ones on stage tonight.
Opening, after air-raid sirens and sound clips about "a riot in progress," with "Uprising," a kind of anthem from 2009's The Resistance, might seem bold—but Muse exuded nothing but mastery of rock and fest-level rock dynamics tonight amid a Tronish set and video backdrop. If the band's album the Resistance, and its revolutionary themes aren't prescient in light of the last year in politics, I don't know what is. Sci-fi rebels have informed rock for decades but few have stuck with the conspiracy/assassination/revolution theme as Muse has over the course of its career. The ambitious "United States of Eurasia" might not have a clear meaning to a festival crowd of tens of thousands, or anyone really, but lines about "ancients heroes turning to dust" teased against a video screen of Churchill make the point as clear as an Economist article—the global axis of power has shifted. Brainy stuff? In Muse's hands, its elemental.
But tonight, as serious and ominously political as a Muse album can be, the band (technically presented as a trio, but featuring a shadowy keyboardist throughout most of the set tonight) also had a way of injecting a looseness in their hour and half plus encore set. Matthew Bellamy would launch into mini jams of rock riffs we all know and love—"Back in Black," Nirvana's "Negative Creep," "The Star Spangled Banner" and even a "House of the Rising Sun" with audience singalong and his band would follow along. Those feel-good vibes were a bonus, really, because Muse's anthems such as "Touch the Other Side" "Map of the Problematique" or "Starlight" from Black Holes and Revelations were simply made to be played in a massive field with fireworks exploding above—as they did.
Sure, if Muse were a T-shirt it might say "Freddie, Thom, Brian and Yngwie"—this is a band that can be picked apart quite easily by naysayers. And when every tune has a very big finish, it can be hard to muster a very big finish that doesn't seem like just another song. But those issues hardly mattered tonight—it was Muse's night as far as I could tell. For those looking for Grand Canyon–size epic moments, intergalactic guitar squall and the glories of revolutionary rock, Muse had all that and more. As Bellamy quipped while thanking the audience, "We know you had options and you picked the right one."