Getting to Shoreline Amphitheatre can be an outsized task. The 22,500-capacity pavilion, literally in Google’s backyard, sits 35 miles south of the city. Transportation is a nightmare. Direct access through public transit is nonexistent, leaving you to fight your way thru the gauntlet that is afternoon traffic in the Peninsula. Sometimes, of course, it’s all worth it. Like when Muse takes to the stage.
Last Friday evening, England’s premiere power-rock trio returned to the Bay Area for the first time since a 2015 gig at Oracle Arena. Although they’re technically in between albums at the moment, the band’s 90 minute-set hardly wanted for purpose. Opening up with their newest single, “Dig Down” — a defiant message of hope couched in the same electro-rhythmic pulses that made “Madness” a smash hit — Muse was here to remind everyone that the world isn’t such a bad place after all, one gut-busting guitar riff at a time.
When they arrived on the American scene in the late ’90s, Muse was dismissed as Radiohead derivative at best — or screamo at worst. And yes, there was a time when frontman Matthew Bellamy donned dark guy-liner, jet-black hair dye, and dropped suspenders. But the band quickly settled into its own sound and aesthetic. Bellamy’s virtuosity, as demonstrated through a barrage of blistering solos and operatic piano overtures, commanded serious attention and hinted at sustained staying power.
Nearly 20 years later, Muse’s approach has evolved to incorporate elements of electronica, glam, and pop — in alternating turns, and with varying degrees of success. But there’s still no denying these guys fucking rock. Proof appeared quickly on Friday in the form of their second number of the night: “Psycho.” Off of their most recent album, it is essentially marching orders set to music — driven by a thunderous riff and backtracked by a drill sergeant straight out of Full Metal Jacket.
From there, the band moved the masses with a string of hits from the height of their hard-rock heyday: “Hysteria,” in all its head-banging glory, “Stockholm Syndrome,” with its breakneck attack, and “Butterflies and Hurricanes,” a rousing call to arms bifurcated by grand piano flourishes.
One of the finest pleasures of seeing Muse in concert is the band’s penchant for incendiary interludes. These one- to two-minute tangents typically assume the shape of some of the more recognizable riffs in rock history. At one particularly fist-clenching moment on Friday, the band caught fire in homage to “Freedom,” from Rage Against the Machine — the last time a rock band made us believe that music could actually incite revolution. With lyrics chronicling conspiracy, corruption, and geopolitical unrest, Muse, too, want to believe that there’s more than one way for music to move you.
By the time the band concluded with their traditional set-closer, “Knights of Cydonia” — evoking a Sergio Leone film set at Burning Man — it suddenly dawned on the frenzied crowd that 90 minutes was hardly enough. Alas, the flip side of escapism is an inevitable reunion with the harsh embrace of reality.
A typical evening with Muse might make you feel more hopeful for humanity, if even for just the fleeting moments when they’re on the stage. But the band’s frantic, often innovative approach, trucked with technical mastery, will definitely leave you with a more lasting optimism as it applies to modern rock. Battling your way down Highway 101 seems a nominal fee in return.