On Friday evening (11 September), Muse faced one of the greatest challenges of their 20-year career so far – could they squeeze three tonnes of pyrotechnics and a Hollywood light show into Camden's Electric Ballroom? Well, no.
And that's the point, really. The Electric Ballroom is a 1930s 1,100-capacity venue nestled alongside a tube station that's habitually threatened with the idea that it could be turned into a shopping centre. Muse haven't played a full UK show anywhere this small since – by my loose calculations – a 2001 gig at Exeter's Lemon Grove. You've got to wonder whether the gargantuan Muse live experience, with its towering lighting rigs, 3D-skyscraper projections and Matt Bellamy's Minority Report interactive AV, can translate to this kind of environment.
Wisely, and inevitably, they dial it down. They can't help making an awesome noise, Bellamy's still hyperactive even if he hasn't got mile-long runways to hare up and down, and Chris Wolstenholme and Dom Howard would be the tightest rhythm section even if (OK, especially if) they were crammed into a shoebox, but stagecraft's kept to a minimum. The light show amounts to some token red LED fairy lights on the neck of Wolstenholme's bass and spotlights flicking from white to green to blue, while the pyros – uh, did anyone wave a lighter during 'Dead Inside'?
Earlier in the day, the band had announced a series of – yes – arena dates for 'The Drones World Tour' in 2016, so an impromptu gig here was an unexpected reaction, but a welcome surprise on a day of treats for the fans. Initially, it's big on 'Drones', with the shredding 'Reapers', glam-stomping 'Psycho' and a slightly misfiring 'The Handler' all aired in the first 15 minutes. "OK, Camden, gonna take you back here," says Bellamy, and suddenly 'Plug In Baby' has everyone onside, the walls shaking.
There's not a great deal of audience interaction otherwise, but that's not really Bellamy's style anyway. Still, playing a venue of this size is an opportunity to forge some closer bonds with the audience, and there's only one laugh on the night. An increasing swell of the crowd starts chanting for 'Black Holes & Revelations' track 'Assassin' as 'Time Is Running Out' finishes, greedy for the tunes that have them turning the Ballroom floor into a trampoline. "Yeah," says Bellamy, "but we haven't got the right bass!"
He's no Bob Monkhouse, but it's a start. The fans are happy enough anyway with a thrilling meld of 'Drones' tracks and classics, from 'Supermassive Black Hole' to 'Uprising', all played with maximum efficiency and barely a glimmer of prog theatrics. Obviously, they can't resist a drum solo at the end of 'Knights Of Cydonia' – I mean, you can take the boys out of the stadium… – but on the whole, and for one night only, Muse reposition themselves as a frighteningly accomplished garage band. Tune in next year for the full shebang.
'Plug In Baby'
'Supermassive Black Hole'
'Time Is Running Out'
'Knights Of Cydonia'