He held his guitar aloft victoriously after the very first tune, a harbinger of what was to come.
Matt Bellamy struck a pose suggestive of a warrior gripping the severed head of a vanquished foe — in this case, subtlety. The Muse frontman and his band mates favor everything outsized: For them, bigger isn’t just better, it’s a reason for being.
In the rock ’n’ roll arms race, these dudes possess the kind of arsenal that makes would-be challengers beg for peace talks.
All of it was on display on the Downtown Stage on Saturday night, when Muse headlined Life is Beautiful day two with the most awesomely immoderate showing in the festival’s five-year history.
Visually, Muse remains at the vanguard of high-tech production values. They’re like The Sharper Image of stadium rock, backed this time by oscillating cubes of light and squirming visuals meant to catalyze retinal overload.
Sonically, there are no bounds. Bellamy is a guitar hero in an increasingly guitarless age, singing as if trying to inspire an army. Muse’s songs swell to life like inflating zeppelins.
On Saturday, Muse began its 19-song set with — what else? — a rousing call to arms in its latest single “Dig Deep” (“Against all odds, you will find a way,” Bellamy promised).
The tone was set; the next hour and 45 minutes followed suit.
As if to demonstrate they’re on equal footing with hard rock’s pantheon — a group they unabashedly vie to join — Muse gives frequent musical nods to all-timers. The band ended “Hysteria” with a few bars of AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” concluded “Dead Inside” with a taste of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and covered The Cramps’ “New Kind of Kick.”
Visuals aside, these thrills were vintage.
A few other takeaways from Saturday:
Who Let (Cocoa) the Dog Out?
Blue-eyed reggae is tricky to pull off, like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube in the burning depths of hell. While blindfolded. With thumbs transformed into Lincoln Logs.
But California’s Stick Figure succeeded at this highly perilous feat during its early-evening set on the Huntridge Stage. Infusing bluesy licks into liquid grooves that grew more muscular as songs progressed, Stick Figure didn’t seek to reinvent the reggae-rock wheel as much as ensure that its tread remained deeply grooved, with frontman Scott Woodruff’s voice and guitar playing expressive and longing.
And then there was Cocoa the Tour Dog.
Woodruff’s Australian shepherd, appointed nattily in an American flag bandanna, joined Stick Figure as it took the stage and stayed for the entire show. When crowd members began batting a huge beach ball in the air, Cocoa went nuts, barking at the thing vociferously.
She wanted it.
Perhaps the only downer about the band’s performance was missing out on that once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a dog stage dive.
No pants, no probs
“I was scared as hell to take my clothes off tonight.”
Midway through Cage the Elephant’s show on the Downtown Stage, frontman Matt Shultz doffed his pants and top to play the rest of the set in legless pantyhose, sporting a portion of the shorn remnants on his head.
Shultz would later explain that exposing himself allowed him to confront his insecurities.
Shultz would back up his words. This was a daring, in-your-face performance, the band’s jagged, overamped garage rock howl indebted to The Stooges and the Stones in tone and temperament.
Shultz, Iggy Pop-lean and sinewy, all jangled nerves and raw lungs, cut a commanding figure while leaping atop stage monitors, swiping headsets from the grounds crew and getting up-close-and-personal with an unamused security guard.
“I’m not your punching bag,” Shultz announced in song.
No, that role was played by the audience.
Bouncing to rap
It seemed the asphalt in front of the Downtown Stage had been magic wanded into trampoline netting, allowing the crowd of 20,000 bounced in place. But it wasn’t good enough for the MC of the hour.
“I’m used to doing rap shows,” Schoolboy Q (Quincy Hanley) announced at his set’s onset, somehow unimpressed by the audience’s energy levels. “Is this a rap show?”
Life is Beautiful has showcased plenty of hip-hop acts, but perhaps none quite as hard-nosed as Hanley. He’s a West Coast gangsta rap throwback, rhyming in a strong, unflinching cadence, eschewing technical fireworks for sheer vocal torque, frequently delivering his words over plinking minor key piano lines and a creeping beat.
“My time to show out, finally the illest Crip,” he boomed on “Break the Bank.” “And I guarantee, I spit harder than concrete.”
Hanley’s labelmates with Kendrick Lamar, and he performed a pair of his running buddy’s tunes (“m.A.A.d. City” and “HUMBLE.”), underscoring the differences between the two: whereas Lamar’s delivery is lithe and slippery, Hanley’s is brute and bulldozing.
The crowd ate it up either way, finally earning Hanley’s approval.
“We turned this place into a rap show,” he beamed at set’s end.
Cutest scene of the day
A trio of preschool-aged kids dancing in the street as Capital Cities played the Downtown Stage. Like that disco-lite troupe, they were totally middle of the road.
Best audience member accessory
The dude walking around with the kiddie fishing pole with a bag of Swedish fish on the hook.
Quote from the stage to remember
“We like to write about things all across the spectrum, like killing Darth Vader with a kick drum,” Missio frontman Matthew Brue
Best call-and-response between artist and audience
Dork rapper Lil Dicky leading the crowd in an “Office Space”-worthy anti-work chant.
Electronically enhanced post-rockers Tycho, who played Life is Beautiful in 2014, bringing equal parts nuance and grandeur to the dance-music-oriented Fremont Stage.
Most fitting T-shirt slogan spotted
“I can’t adult today.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.