British trio Muse has been a rarity since emerging from Teignmouth, England, in 1994 — and not just because they’ve kept the same personnel for 23 years.
That country’s creative popular music influence from the 1960s and 1970s (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, The Police, etc.) had previously been co-opted by the twin evils of late-’70s disco and early ’80s music videos, resulting in British stars like Depeche Mode, Culture Club, Duran Duran, and Soft Cell — all more viewable and danceable than listenable or impactful.
By the 1990s, rock had regained a foothold via Seattle’s grunge movement, which spawned bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone, and Pearl Jam. Muse formed the same year that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain committed suicide, and the trio of vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Matt Bellamy, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Chris Wolstenholme, and drummer/percussionist Dominic Howard has since increased its relevance via seven studio releases and countless raucous live appearances, all while blending the electronic and progressive elements of creative British rarities that rose through the ’80s (The Cure) and ’90s (Radiohead).
Another Seattle export, Heart vocalist Ann Wilson, recently named Muse’s 2013 recording Live at Rome Olympic Stadium among her Top 10 favorite live albums of all time — aside those by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, The Who, Deep Purple, Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Cash. And Muse’s powerful Saturday concert at Perfect Vodka Ampitheatre in West Palm Beach, with opening acts Thirty Seconds To Mars and PVRIS, displayed why.
Massachusetts-spawned opener PVRIS (vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Lyndsey Gunnulfsen, guitarist/keyboardist Alex Babinski, bassist/keyboardist Brian MacDonald, and touring drummer Justin Nace) came out of the gate roaring in broad daylight at 7 p.m. with the ampitheatre crowd already at 3/4 capacity.
If anything, PVRIS (pronounced “Paris,” but changed from that for legal reasons) peaked too early. Playing mostly material from its 2014 debut White Noise rather than its forthcoming sophomore effort All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell, the quartet announced its presence loudly with the raucous openers “Fire” and “St. Patrick.” Gunnulfsen prowled the stage with great presence, and also played keyboards, guitar, and joined Nace on the drum riser to bash away at his cymbals. The group’s only weakness would prove to be a lack of backing vocals, which were recorded and sequenced in.
Babinski and MacDonald both alternated between their axes and keyboards, but the other focal point proved to be Nace, who, if he doesn’t have studio fright or shortcomings, should be hired full-time. A pounding, visual force who added effective accents, the drummer also punished his kit during later mid-tempo numbers like “Smoke” and “My House” during the band’s 30-minute set.
“We’re a band called Paris,” Gunnulfsen said before the latter closer, “and spelled PVRIS. I know that makes no sense.” Yet it certainly would make sense if this talented, charismatic unit achieves further name recognition in spite of its hard-to-spell moniker.
Los Angeles act Thirty Seconds To Mars is led by Jared Leto, the singer/guitarist and actor who won a supporting Oscar for the 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club, and is rounded out by his brother Shannon Leto (drums), Tomo Milicevic (guitar, percussion, vocals) and touring keyboardist Stephen Aiello.
Much of the crowd appeared to be there for the quartet, filling the venue to near-capacity by its 8 p.m. start time. But while Los Angeles is likely the leading producer of notable acts in popular music since the rock era started, it’s hard to imagine Thirty Seconds To Mars being as popular without Leto’s preceding acting celebrity.
Amid a percussive intro by his brother and Milicevic, he entered the stage in full regalia: sunglasses, a backward baseball cap, and a red robe that made him appear more like a cult leader than lead singer. Perhaps that was foreshadowing, because the audience recurringly obeyed his commands of “Get your hands up!” and “Sing it!” during a series of songs based more in crowd-pleasing vocal chants than anything more substantial.
By mid-set, Leto delivered his most poignant performances. But it was telling that they came with him singing solo with only his acoustic guitar, and halfway back in the ampitheatre between its seats and the rapidly filling lawn.
“What’s your name?” Leto asked a boy sitting nearby who appeared to be about 4 years old. “Valentino? Nice to meet you. Has anybody heard of ‘The Kill?’”
It was a recurring theme, as Leto effectively earned response from the crowd by announcing some of the band’s most popular pieces. This one, from the 2005 release A Beautiful Lie, framed his otherwise unremarkable voice effectively, as did “Attack,” from the same record.
Leto returned to the stage for “City of Angels,” from the group’s latest release, Love, Lust, Faith & Dreams (2013). The versatile Milicevic alternated between guitar and percussion, augmenting the workmanlike drumming of Shannon Leto and keyboard bass lines of Aiello (who was set up on the extreme side of the stage), yet Thirty Seconds To Mars’ strengths and weaknesses are encapsulated by its leader.
And Leto’s tiring, pitchy voice was failing, so the vocalist resorted to gimmicks like chanting contests between the left-and-right-hand sides of the crowd, prancing around while holding an American flag, and filling the stage with adoring fans before the close of his band’s one-hour set.
“Thank you for your patience,” Leto said, offering a disclaimer. “We haven’t played in two years, and we’re just shaking off the cobwebs.” Indeed. Unlike Cher, Leto started his musical career after achieving success as an impressive actor. But like the artist formerly known as Cherilyn Sarkisian, he’s more convincing at his occasional day job.
Muse started its 90-minute-plus set with great fanfare for what was now a capacity crowd. With no releases since its 2015 recording Drones, the trio, augmented by all-purpose keyboardist/guitarist/percussionist/backing vocalist Morgan Nicholls, opened with “Dig Down,” its anticipated new single. Bellamy’s vocals on the methodical dirge soared as he played a keytar (a keyboard on a strap, shaped like a guitar); and Wolstenholme a double-neck bass with a pitch shifter, like on a synthesizer.
Most of the evening’s subsequent highlights were from Drones, the hard-edged, Best Rock Album Grammy-winning concept effort that likewise features plenty of pitch-shifting by the versatile Bellamy on guitar. On “Psycho,” he played a suitably psychotic solo — the first of many — that echoed elements of Jimi Hendrix, Tom Morello (from Rage Against the Machine), Adrian Belew (King Crimson), Jeff Beck, and Steve Vai.
“Dead Inside” blended the group’s occasional synth-pop leanings, with the invaluable Nicholls leading that charge on keyboards, into the notorious power trio heaviness of Bellamy, Wolstenholme, and Howard’s fittingly sparse drumming. “Mercy” did the same while upping the tempo and adding gospel elements through Bellamy’s vocal phrasing. Midway through the piece, confetti and streamers flew into the crowd from all angles, adding to the rave environment.
“Thank you,” said Bellamy afterward. “Things are about to get real prog rock here.”
A dramatic, 10-minute “The Globalist” featured Bellamy’s whistling in its intro, which led to a bolero snare drum pattern by Howard, Wolstenholme playing guitar, and Nicholls adding bass patterns on keyboards. As a futuristic video montage played along the stage’s back wall, the piece’s tranquil atmospherics turned aggressive, and Bellamy’s soaring falsetto echoed elements of Jeff Buckley, David Bowie, and Freddie Mercury of Queen. Near its finale, the singer switched to piano, downshifting the feel back into art rock territory.
Two tracks from earlier recordings closed the show without diminishing its energy or drama. “Uprising,” from Muse’s other Best Rock Album Grammy winner The Resistance (2009), featured an infectious three-part vocal chorus between Bellamy, Wolstenholme (now playing a bass with LED lights in its neck) and Nicholls, now on guitar.
The versatile bassist then played a harmonica intro on “Knights of Cydonia,” from the science fiction-themed 2006 release Black Holes and Revelations. Another lengthy epic, the track eventually shifted into techno terrain, complete with more layered vocal harmonies, as the back riser with Howard and Nicholls on it rolled forward so the entire quartet could be up front.
That final track was long enough, in fact, to negate any possibility of an encore because of the venue’s strict 11 p.m. sound ordinance, although the massive audience clearly wanted at least one. All of which bodes well for the group’s next South Florida appearance, plus the eventual new album that will house the single they opened this Perfect Vodka Ampitheatre show with.