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UK 2011- The first two shows- Blaze Bayley and Muse

August 29, 2011

It is three in the morning and the Reading Festival wristband is beginning to cut off the blood supply to the fingers on my right hand. My back is stiff, my feet spongy and my fingers blue. There is nothing like a long rock festival to awaken the inner geriatric in a bunch of people in their twenties. Complete strangers bonded over buckling knees and sore ankles.

This was the weekend that ended my seven month concert drought. Two concerts on successive days, from two opposite ends of the popularity spectrum. Saturday night’s show was former Iron Maiden lead singer Blaze Bayley in front of fifty people (most of whom left much before the end to catch the last train of the day), Sunday’s was Muse’s headlining performance at the Reading Festival to 87,000. This was a cultural exchange between A and me, the Blaze show being my idea and the Muse show hers.

As much as he tried to extol the virtues of playing a tiny gig like Saturday’s at the Water Rats in Islington, there is no doubt that somewhere at the back of Blaze Bayley’s mind was a voice asking what exactly went wrong. Although not the most popular Iron Maiden frontman, his four year stint with them surely warrants a larger audience, especially when half the set consists of Blaze era Iron Maiden songs. He did well to get the sparse gathering going initially, but lost the plot about halfway through when his speeches between songs made him sound more and more like he was selling a pyramid scheme.

I screamed for him when he asked us to scream from him (I wonder if Bruce Dickinson receives royalty cheques for that). I clapped furiously when he caught me not clapping furiously. I politely applauded when he started telling us we need to ‘live our lives for ourselves, not others’. He lost me when he asked us to ‘grab all the negativity, hatred and shit in our lives, put it in a fist and then Kill and Destroy it’. The last was as bad an attempt to introduce a song title innocuously into a sentence as if John Lennon had said ‘I was watching the Godfather the other day wondering why they went to all that trouble when they could just as easily Dig a Pony.’

By the end of the show, it would have been easier to introduce the audience to the band instead of the other way around. It was an odd show, and ultimately disappointing for as big a fan of his work as I am.

The next morning, as the ringing in my ears began to subside, A and I caught the train to Reading and arrived nine hours before Muse’s headlining performance. Five hours of wandering, eating and alternating between sunglasses and raincoats later, we were at the venue. In a moment of incredible foresight, A suggested that if we did get lost, we should eventually meet back at the Reading Station before the last train of the day.

Watching the footage of the show that is already available online, along with a few older clips, it is clear that no video recording can do justice to the superhuman spectacle that is Muse’s live show. I have read tomes dedicated to Pink Floyd’s sense-overloading live performances at their peak and I have no doubt that years from now, Muse’s live shows will be spoken of just as fondly.

It is always special when a band performs an entire album at a single show, whether promoting a successful new album or revisiting a classic. It adds an extra sense of occasion. At Reading, as they had done two days earlier at Leeds, Muse opened with New Born off their 2001 album, Origin of Symmetry and played the album through in running order to its closer Megalomania. The second half was dedicated to newer material, with three songs each off their last three albums.

The stage was designed to recreate the album’s cover, and from the moment the orange screen which covered the front of the stage lit up and Matt Bellamy began the piano intro in silhouette, it was clear that this was no ordinary performance. The screen lifted to a frantic and chaotic response from the audience, which was soon drowned out by the dirty distorted guitar riff from New Born. By the time they had moved on past Bliss to Space Dementia, I had reached the end of my ‘being-elbowed-repeatedly-in-the-throat-while-ankle-deep-in-mud’ quota, and made my way with great effort and pain to the side of the venue some two hundred metres away. It is one thing to hold an audience of a couple of thousand dedicated fans in a closed theatre. But to be that engaging to a moderately enthusiastic fan at a distance of a third of a kilometre for two hours is testament to the greatness of this band’s live show. Energetic and clever music, pyrotechnics, needless guitar violence, lasers and a screen the size of a small country all meant that I had found another band I am willing to travel hundreds of kilometres to watch.

Bellamy proved that you do not have to be loquacious to be a great front-man. The sheer control (both vocal and instrumental) on display had the entire crowd spellbound. And he proved that it is still very cool to kill and destroy your guitar in front of thousands of people (perhaps it represented all the negativity, hatred and shit in his life).

Realising that A was not going to show up anywhere near where I was, I made my way to the back of the venue at the beginning of the last song, Knights of Cydonia. The hour long walk back to the station through mud, grime and excrement was unpleasant.The reunion with A at the station (which, as she simply would not let me forget, was her idea) capped an exhausting and surreal evening.

It is hard not to compare the two shows, if simply to marvel at the contrast. It bodes well for the next few months of shows that I have lined up in and around London. Things are looking promising.

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