Concert Review: Muse at the Air Canada Centre

Who says arena rock is dead? English pop rock trio Muse has spent their current North American tour staking their claim as the next band to take the epic live spectacle mantle, following in the footsteps of acts like U2, Queen and Pink Floyd.

Tuesday night’s show at the ACC, the first of two back-to-back performances at the venue, was no exception. The grandiose, larger-than-life showcase was to concerts what Michael Bay’s latest blockbuster is to movies: a mindlessly overblown spectacle that is also a whole lot of fun.

Not particularly inclined to be subtle, the trinity of Dominic Howard, Matthew Bellamy and Christopher Wolstenholme announced their presence amidst an army of bright LED screens while coated in a red light. What followed was a tight 1:45 set that consistently remained in high-gear as the band seamlessly transitioned between tracks off of their recent The 2nd Law and some of their older work, most notably the wildly popular 2009 album The Resistance.

When they weren’t cranking out crowd-pleasing hits such as “Time is Running Out,” “Uprising” and “Starlight,” Muse was busy demonstrating their own love for music by paying homage to those that came before them. They capped off “Map of the Problematique” with a few bars of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker;” they closed out “Stockholm Syndrome” with Rage Against the Machine's “Freedom” and they wrapped up the pre-encore set with The Guess Who’s “American Woman.” In an additional nod to their Canadian fans on hand, they also threw in some of Rush’s “YYZ,” which would have probably meant more if the crowd of 14,000 had actually picked up on it before Bellamy personally offered a Geddy Lee shout-out.

Not that the 19-year veterans didn’t sound pretty sharp in their own right. Thanks to a wide-ranging scope of musical talents possessed by each of the three band members, the group’s sound belies its relatively small ensemble. Credit a busy group of technicians, who kept the band sounding crisp and loud as its members transitioned from guitar, piano and keyboard (Bellamy) to drums and percussion (Howard) to bass and even harmonica (Wostenholme).

And yet, Muse’s over-the-top staging and high-tech special effects still make the music seem secondary — not that there’s anything wrong with that. During “Stockholm Syndrome,” the band was surrounded by an array of television screens that lit up the stage. “Panic Station” was overshadowed immediately with the on-screen arrival of a sax-playing alien, who was soon joined by a dancing purple ogre.

As the relatively short set — including an “is that all?” two-song encore — indicated, Muse is not all the way there in terms of being heirs to the arena rock throne. There is still work to be done in order to ensure that their songbook grows to match the epic feel of their shows (The 2nd Law is a step in the right direction). But if a raucous, engaging show with 14,000 on hand is the beginning, it’s exciting to think about where they might go from here.

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