Thanks to performances from the likes of Kanye West and Metallica during last years festival, SXSW has gained a penchant for the surprise show. This year the rumour was not quite as well hidden. Take a quick glance at Muse’s US tour schedule and a free date could be seen, specifically after a gig at The Toyota Centre in Houston, Texas. Little guesswork was needed then to presume they would be the ones performing the megastar gig, fitting stadium-sized anthems into a venue the size of a pub’s car park. News reports confirmed the gig was taking place at Stubbs’ only the day before and the venue chosen was hardly a surprise either given that Metallica played the same stage. The only problem was supply meeting demand, or practically, how the hell can you make sure you get in? Thankfully the festival had already devised an ingenious plan with a new initiative known as the SXXPress pass. Simply pick a venue and arrive at the Convention Centre for a pass gifting you queue jumping privileges for performances that day. So there your trusted correspondents went and, predictably, a line had already formed with the booths yet to open. Only passes for 10% of the venue’s capacity were released, passes which quickly came and went with three in the hands of particularly relieved correspondents.
Arriving at the venue in good time, the excitement was already palpable judging by the crowd of revellers lurking outside Stubbs’. What greeted them was a stripped down stage set up, lacking the usual pyrotechnics and bizarre range of props that Muse have become renowned for. They simply strolled onstage, leaving frontman Matt Bellamy to politely say hello before launching into a rousing rendition of Uprising followed by an all conquering Supermassive Black Hole. What was lacking in set-up was made up for by a formidable din that seemed condensed by the surroundings. Those with exposed ear drums were thankful for the freebies that lurked at the bottom of their goodie bags.
Always one to respect his crowd, Bellamy dutifully followed Resistance with a reverb drenched outro of Star Spangled Banner. Not quite Woodstock but the sentiment was appreciated as the guitar licks bled into Hysteria. Of course, the gig would not be complete without a few visual effects and they arrived with an awe-inspiring display of green lasers during Stockholm Syndrome. Being in this day and age meant that the spectacle was caught on any device to hand with the lasers illuminating the shrubbery as if an invasion of radioactive fireflies. Those paying attention back onstage were rewarded by Bellamy’s showmanship of darting across stage swinging his guitar in the air. The theatrics were put aside for a brief few Queen evoking moments of sweeping guitar hooks and sudden, rising vocals during United States of Eurasia. Justifiably, The Resistance was gifted preference in the setlist as Undisclosed Desires followed but the highlights remained from their back catalogue with a muscular rendition of Starlight then a truly apocalyptic Time Is Running Out. Subtlety is a moot point but for the eerie chimes that preceded Unnatural Selection as sticksman Dominic Howard displayed his exuberant drumming credentials.
When the band did return for an encore, bassist Chris Wolstenholme led with a lonely harmonica intro. A few atmospherics followed until Knights of Cydonia was finally unleashed. Like a spaghetti western condensed into seven galloping minutes, the track provided the gig with the epic finale it deserved.