You will probably be surprised to learn that, at the ripe old age of 54 and having attended rock & roll shows since the mid-1970s, I made it all the way to 2015 without ever seeing a U2 concert. It’s not that I haven’t liked them – I’ve never NOT liked U2. Mostly, for years, they were one of those bands who’d come on the radio and I’d turn it up and think, golly, I do love this song, I should really pick up more of their albums one of these days. (There are a LOT of bands like that, to be honest.) I almost went to the St. Louis show on the 360 Tour, but I had neither a viable car nor anyone to go with at that point, and between overly complicated travel logistics & the whole stadium thing – it was all just so *big* on that tour – I just didn’t do it. (And I’m one of the few people I know who quite likes the “No Line on the Horizon” album.)
Then “Songs of Innocence” came out, and I quite liked that as well. Plus, Mr. Springsteen wasn’t making any kind of noises about touring anytime soon, and I was feeling the need for a big old arena rock show. So when the U2 Innocence+Experience Tour was announced, I was on board for Chicago.
When they first announced the tour the shows were in pairs, and they said nights 1 and 2 would be distinctly different. As it turns out, that ended up not being the case – and then when the stage and big-screen setup was revealed, I realized that my seat for night 1 was right smack facing the edge of the big screen (which I was told was pretty integral to the show) so I wouldn’t be able to see what was on the screen *at all*. And my seat for night 2 was waaaaaaaaay up in the rafters. Terrible seats, both of them, I thought. Plus, three more shows were announced *after* I had bought my tickets for nights 1 and 2, any of which would have been more convenient for travel than the Wednesday/Thursday pair I’d just spent what was for me a lot of money on. So, I was actually feeling a little cranky about the shows, half tempted to scrap it all, try to sell the tickets, and go on with my life.
Good thing I didn’t.
So here’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version. “I’m not a rabid U2 fan. I like arena rock shows generally. Should I go see U2 on this tour?” My answer is, YES. For sure. That is, unless you can’t stand the new album (because it really does form the centerpiece of the show – as a new album SHOULD, I think), or unless rock shows with a strong, predetermined narrative bother you. (At some point, though not today, I plan to write more about what I see as an essential tension between the scripted/theatrical and the spontaneous/improvised – something that I think is a pretty interesting tension to explore in the context of rock & roll. After all, improv is theater too.)
The technology is great, the songs are great, the show’s narrative works really well and incorporates both new and old songs for the most part seamlessly. The band seems enthusiastic about performing and the audience is also enthusiastic. It’s an immersive experience, emotionally and musically engaging.
Well, if you can’t stand U2 (as several of my friends can’t), you probably shouldn’t go. Bono hasn’t stopped being Bono, you know? Ha! (I actually do like the “little megalomaniac,” as he called himself on stage one night. Would we be best pals if we met in real life and were in a social position to hang out? Doubtful. But I’m not paying my ticket money to have a best pal. I have friends who will hang out with me for nothin’, believe it or not. I’m at a rock show to see a rock star. And Bono’s pretty good at that. But I digress.)
Obviously I can’t compare this show to previous tours. And yes, I envy my friends who saw them in the early years, for sure! But you gotta live in the present, and live music for me is very much about being in the moment, not regretting the past or worrying about the future. And this moment, this tour, this show, is pretty great.
So, on to my more detailed (okay, verbose) thoughts on the shows that I saw.
Getting to Chicago is, for some reason, always fraught for me. It’s just a little over 200 miles, not a bad drive at all, but I always end up at my destination frazzled, later than I’d planned, and muttering things under my breath about traffic and not being a city girl and I don’t know why I put myself through this. This trip was no exception. Despite the best efforts of my perfectly good GPS, I took TWO wrong turns in Gary, and of course I managed to roll into town at about 5:30 so I felt like I was rolling into a greatest-hits double-bill show by Chicago and Traffic. I had just enough time to check into my hotel, change clothes, eat a quick snack of cheese and Fig Newtons and a banana, and get over to the arena; the ticketed start time was 7:30 (I knew the show wouldn’t start until eight-ish) and I got to my seat around 7:45 or so. Just enough time to breathe for a minute, and to think about getting an overpriced crappy beer but not to actually do anything about it.
I love, love, love the minutes before a rock show starts. The GA floor was filling up rapidly – I’d thought about trying to pick up a GA ticket, but between getting there so late and the packed-like-sardines appearance of the floor, I was glad I hadn’t; at 5 foot 1, if I’m farther back than three deep or so from the stage, I’m probably not going to see much unless I can get some space between me and the people right in front of me. My seat was, indeed, pretty much smack behind the edge of the big screen, so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to see that. But I was on the aisle, which is always pleasant, because that way even if there’s a big dude in front of me (which there usually is) I can edge out into the aisle and see. And I was in row 5 behind the smaller stage, which – I suddenly realized – was very, very close. I didn’t know whether I’d see much of U2’s faces, since I was behind the stage, but whatever I saw would be from pretty dang close. And my view of the larger stage, at the other end of the arena, was pretty much unobstructed.
It was going to be OK.
A bit about the stage setup, for those who haven’t been to one of these shows and haven’t been following on social media or whatever. So there’s a big, rectangular, fairly traditional-looking stage at one end of the arena. It’s open on all four sides (U2 is doing interesting things with the sound on this tour, so there are no speaker stacks behind or on the sides of the stage, in fact very little equipment to speak of other than the instruments and mics and a few guitar amps). Then there’s a long runway or bridge spanning the length of the arena, and there’s a big screen hanging from the ceiling that’s the length of this bridge; the screen goes up and down during the show and performs various functions – I saw it described as the Swiss army knife of big screens, and for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a corkscrew in there somewhere.
Then at the other end of the arena is a smaller, round stage with no speakers or equipment on it to start with. The big stage is the “i” stage and the small one is the “e” stage, each stage’s surface painted with its respective letter – fitting the “innocence + experience” theme of the show. The entire floor is general admission standing, with two areas near the “i” stage set aside as the “Red Zone” where people pay exorbitant prices for VIP tickets and the money goes to U2’s global anti-AIDS charity, (RED). Because of the setup, even the people with the worst spots on the floor are less than half the width of the arena away from at least some part of the stage – not that much farther back than the back of the pit at a Springsteen show. And the whole band performs extensively from both stages as well as from the runway and even from inside the big screen, so everybody gets a chance to be close-ish at some point. It’s actually a really good setup.
Night 1 Notes: Until the End of the World and Then Some
Thanks to social media, I knew that Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” would play over the PA just before the band came onstage. So when that song started up – and the lights dimmed, and the volume rose, making it an actual part of the show – I stood up and got ready. (That’s such a great song, too. Especially LOUD, with people singing along.) What I hadn’t realized was that Bono enters from the “e” stage. People around me got really excited and then whoa! There’s Bono! RIGHT THERE! Ha! Fun moment.
He starts singing the “oh, ohhh, oh” intro to “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” and acknowledges the crowd, then saunters down the runway and then the band kicks in and holy crap, when you’ve had as many huge hits as U2 it takes a bit of nerve to open with one of your new songs I think, but it works REALLY well as an opener. Is there anything that feels as great as that first big bass drum blast and that first ferocious guitar of a rock show? Some people like fireworks or roller coasters. I’ll take this instead, any day.
I won’t go through the entire setlist song by song, but I’ll hit some of the high points. Mostly, the narrative of the show works really well. A little tribute to the Ramones, who inspired and influenced them to start playing, followed by one of their very early songs (night 1 was “Electric Co.” and night 2 was “Out of Control” – both sounding incredibly fresh and joyful). “Iris,” Bono’s love song to his mother who died when he was young – “She left me, and left me an artist,” he says, talking about how artists create in order to fill the empty places in their own lives and hearts – was heartfelt and quite moving.
“Song for Someone,” another love song (this time thinking back on when he fell in love, still quite young, with the woman who would become his wife) was also lovely although this was where I began to notice that the rumors about Bono being sick were probably true, as his voice did sound a bit ragged around the edges. Didn’t impede my enjoyment of the show, honestly, but I’m not a vocal purist either. Vocals can be a bit off and still be OK for me. But guitars, man – you gotta tune those!
The heart of the show is about the intersection of personal and political pain, loss, and rage – and how coming of age is about love and loss (the innocence/experience thing). The segue from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to “Raised By Wolves” to “Until the End of the World” is wholly scripted, with technology and choreography and everything planned down to the second, but it’s completely *present* and some of the most intense moments I’ve witnessed in a rock show. The three songs flow from one to the next; as SBS ends Bono’s singing “I can’t believe the news today” over and over, there’s an audio montage that sounds like going from one radio station to another with snippets of news about a car bomb and other radio snippets from the same moment, and Larry’s standing in the middle of the bridge with a single drum, alone and perfectly still, ringing out single ominous drumbeats.
And then BOOM – the big screen flashes white and there’s an explosion sound that shakes you to your core and ricochets around the arena like a Star Wars explosion in a surround-sound theater. I’ve not heard anything quite like it on this big a scale – it’s just a moment, but it’s quite a feat of audio, really. Made the hairs on my arms stand up. And then “Raised By Wolves” which isn’t my favorite on the album but in this show it is ferocious and sinister and chilling. It ends with Bono on his knees muttering parts of the 23rd Psalm, then muttering “comfort me” and finally screaming, “COMFORT ME” – it’s so intense I get goosebumps just thinking back on it. And then “Until the End of the World” which is whirling and apocalyptic and … just everything, everything. I’m not sure I have ever felt so *immersed* in a rock show before, not even Springsteen at his most emotionally riveting.
There’s a tiny intermission at that point, which I’d heard about and thought it was weird but you know what, after that three-pack I kind of needed to sit down and breathe for a minute! There’s a video on the big screen, animated, Johnny Cash singing “The Wanderer.” It only lasts about four or five minutes, during which time crew members scurry around the smaller stage setting up a drum kit and other equipment. Then the next couple of songs have the band playing actually *inside* the big screen, with animation enhancing them – turns out the screen is actually a cage of sorts, with the lights and animation and whatnot being projected on a closely woven mesh and not a solid “screen” really at all. It’s quite ingenious actually. You kinda have to see it. Then they troop out of the screen, still playing, and all four take up residence on the smaller stage for a few songs.
I’m a big fan of the Edge, and I gotta say, it was incredibly fun to be that close to him to witness firsthand his “Mysterious Ways” dancing/playing. And “Elevation”! That was one of my favorite songs from either night – again, the recorded version is not necessarily one of my favorite U2 songs, but the energy was just off the charts with the audience singing and dancing along. It wasn’t exactly like being in a small sweaty rock club with the band, but it was about as close as you can get in a 20,000 person arena. So, so fun.
The rest of the show was loaded with the big hits, played well, with cool lighting and screen effects. “Pride” sounded amazing, as did “Beautiful Day” and “City of Blinding Lights.” And “Where the Streets Have No Name” basically never fails, does it? So great. I left the arena afterwards feeling washed clean, feeling bigger and bolder and ready to take on the world. If a rock show does that, it is without question a success in my book.
Intermezzo: Doing the Ticket Shuffle
Thursday I enjoyed some downtime walking around the Lincoln Park neighborhood near my hotel. (Did you know there’s a diner in Lincoln Park called “The Edge”? Yup. Right around the corner from my hotel, open 24 hours, and it’s nothing super special but you can get breakfast all day, and at lunchtime on Thursday it was quiet enough that I didn’t feel bad about taking up a table for a couple of hours so I could have a leisurely meal and write in my journal for a while.)
I thought about how close I’d been to the “e” stage the night before, and I thought about my ticket for that night, waaaaaaay up in the rafters. I’ve had this feeling before: after being so close to the band, how can I bear to be so far away? Yes, I’d like to see the big screen, but… ugh. I decided that there were probably some seats in the sections to the left and right of mine that would still be close to the “e” stage but would be at an angle where you could generally see the screen. Oddly, those weren’t tier-1 pricing seats, like my behind-stage seat they were tier-2; for months I’d been looking at available seats and just could never bring myself to buy the most expensive (non-Red Zone) tickets, which were nearly $300. Just couldn’t do that, nor could I bring myself to pay a scalper much above face value. But if one of these would pop up…
I kept poking at Ticketmaster and StubHub all day, just in case. And around 3 pm, lo and behold, there appears a single ticket in the section just to the left of where I’d been. In the third row. I knew there was very little chance I could sell my single seat in the rafters that late in the game, and I decided to splurge anyway. Section 107, row 3, here I come. When I do something crazy like this – like the very expensive last-minute ticket I picked up for Paul McCartney a while back – I can tell if I’ve done the right thing because I kind of start dancing. At least in my head. And that was happening. So.
Got to the arena with a little more time to spare than the first night and found my seat, which was in the middle of the row, next to a rather large man who was eating something quite … er … aromatic. He asked me, a bit crankily, if I was going to be screaming the whole time. “Probably,” I said. Then my neighbor on the other side sat down – a middle-aged woman, with her husband in the aisle seat on her other side – and proceeded to start coughing like she had bronchitis, and asking her husband if he knew whether there was going to be an opening act. I guessed that they might not take too kindly to my “screaming the whole time” either. And directly in front of me, a fairly tall man. Greeeeeat. I was starting to think I was going to regret my last-minute ticket purchase and maybe I should just leave and go up to my original seat in the rafters.
Next to the tall man in front of me was a young mother, in the second-row aisle seat, with her daughter who was probably around six or seven. Super cute kid. And, well. As the lights went down and “People Have the Power” started to play, the young mother realized that the front-row seats in front of her were vacant, and she & her daughter upgraded themselves. I gave it about a half-second’s thought before I slipped down into the second-row aisle seat she’d been in. Tapped her on the shoulder and promised to give her her seat back if she got kicked out of the front row by the rightful ticket holders. And we shared a moment of joy at our suddenly-improved seating luck. I could indeed see the screen, and I was still really close to the “e” stage, and I was behind short people and could see both stages perfectly, and all of a sudden I was very much in my happy place. Yeah!
Night 2 Notes: You Look So Beautiful Tonight
A very similar setlist to night 1 in most respects – the first set featured “Out of Control” in the “Electric Co.” slot, and the second set had a little more variation. Emotionally and musically, still basically the same show. Bono’s voice was decidedly rougher Thursday night – I’ve since heard that the poor guy had bronchitis, which isn’t fun for anyone, much less a singer! By the last song, “One,” he’d pretty much given up singing; he took maybe half a verse and the audience was happy to help out by collectively taking on the rest.
Despite an ailing frontman, I thought the show still had great energy and resonance. The three-pack that closes the first set seemed to have a little less intensity and impact than on night 1, but it’s hard to say, since night 1 also had the “first time I’ve witnessed this” sheen for me. It was really really lovely to get “Bad” towards the end of the second set; despite a rough vocal, it’s one of my absolute favorite U2 songs and I was excited about it.
The middle bit of this show was the highlight for me, most definitely. I was, as I mentioned, in the aisle seat in the second row of one of the sections to the rear of the “e” stage. I was wearing an Amnesty International t-shirt, and that’s one of the band’s pet causes, so I was hoping I might get a nod of approval from someone at some point. (It says “Fighting Bad Guys Since 1961″ – which, since I was born in 1961, is so perfect.) I was also directly behind an attractive young woman and her adorable small daughter, as you’ll recall. For at least one of those reasons, and perhaps a combination of all of them (with the added special sauce of me dancing and singing like a giddy maniac), the Edge spotted our little section during “Mysterious Ways” and grinned at us. So that was fun. Then during “Angel of Harlem” he zeroed in on us, stood right in front of us and played directly to us, smiling, for what felt like ages. (I timed it on someone’s YouTube video. It was actually about a minute. Time does funny things sometimes.) “Angel” was never one of my favorite U2 songs, but it’s now taken up residence in my head as this fantastic memory.
For me, there are few nicer moments during a rock show than feeling absolutely joyfully immersed in the music, making eye contact with one of the musicians, knowing that they see how much you’re loving what they are doing, feeling like they’re happy to be there too. In the best of those moments, this exchange of energy happens and it’s a pure and beautiful thing. I can only guess at how it feels for the performer; different, I’m sure, but I bet they love those moments too.
I really loved watching Edge both nights. As a (semi-lapsed, I guess) guitarist, I was fascinated by watching his technique. There were times when he was playing really fast but his hands were so, so quiet – just pure economy of motion that allowed him to play both super fast and super clean. He seems totally centered as he plays, and moves around the stage so gracefully. (Which is why it’s pretty funny that he managed to fall off the stage during one of the early shows on the tour. He wasn’t hurt, but I don’t think Bono is ever going to let him live it down. “Some people have fallen off of this stage, you know,” he said on one of the nights. “But when the Edge falls off stage, it’s like throwing a cat off a wall – he always lands on his feet.”)
Later on during the show, he comes back to the “e” stage for part of “City of Blinding Lights” – the “oh you look so beautiful tonight” part. He’s standing there in the middle of the stage, singing his harmony on that line, and the audience is circled around him, singing it back to him, pointing at him. That was a really shiny, fun moment too. And eye contact, AGAIN. Oh hello there, Mr. The Edge. I feel like we’re almost getting to be friends now. Hee!
Oh, the screen! I could see the screen, which I hadn’t been able to the night before. And it is an amazing amazing piece of work. There are times when the band is performing inside the screen and the images on the screen part to reveal them. There’s a moment when the Edge is playing inside the screen and Bono is over on the “e” stage, and Bono reaches out his hand and the giant electronic Bono being broadcast on the screen suddenly has the tiny-by-comparison, real human Edge dancing in the palm of his hand. So many other neat moments on that screen that I won’t spoil for my friends who have yet to see the show. Whoever designed it should get some kind of an award, because it’s very, very well done. I’m usually anti-high-tech for rock shows, you know? I like them gritty, sweaty, human without too much fancy lighting or theatrical effects. But somehow, this band and this show manage to make it work so that it enhances the music and the narrative created by the music. WELL DONE.
“Well done” by the audience too, which sang along with great enthusiasm, especially on the big 1980s hits. My favorite had to be “Pride (In the Name of Love)” which you can just scream along to for days and when the whole arena is doing it, it’s just miraculously loud and joyous. And given recent events in this country, that song was especially resonant for a lot of us, I think. And (I know I’m jumping around a bit here), how about that bass line on “Bullet the Blue Sky”? Freaking incredible at that volume. Both nights, I had to sit down for a moment and just let that tremendous roar rumble through me. I cannot say enough good things about the U2 rhythm section. Adam Clayton – does anyone have more fun playing rockstar while playing propulsive, just-funky-enough bass lines? And Larry Mullen Jr. – for a guy who verges on scrawny, he certainly makes that drum kit thunder. His work on “Even Better Than the Real Thing” was a particular joy to behold. What a powerful heartbeat those two create.
Lastly, a word about “Every Breaking Wave.” I fell head over heels in love with this song when I heard bootlegs of early versions of it on the 360 tour. When I first heard the full band version on “Songs of Innocence” I felt like it had lost something, that it was maybe over-arranged, although I’ve grown to love that version too. On the i+e tour, there’s a piano that literally rises out of the “e” stage for just this one song, and the arrangement is simple – just the Edge on piano and Bono singing. It’s really lovely, and yet I feel like this song (which I still adore, in whatever form it takes) hasn’t found its best arrangement yet. To my ear, it’s still missing something. I’ll be interested to see how (if) it evolves over time.
Aftermath: a moment of surrender
The day after my two shows started out bleary and half-awake (because who can go to sleep within a few hours of so much energy?? so I was up late) – and became a flurry of excitement about five minutes after I sat down in the hotel breakfast room only to find out that the Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of marriage equality. It’s a bit surreal finding out news like that before you’ve finished your first cup of coffee. I spent the day doing a little sightseeing, then decamped to a good friend’s apartment and had dinner with four friends I don’t see nearly often enough. So fun, and so good for my heart and soul.
Saturday was an absolutely gorgeous day, lots of sun, low humidity – also a bit surreal after a very rainy stretch. I hit the road for the drive home and managed NOT to take any wrong turns in Gary, for once. At my first rest stop I checked Twitter to see what was happening in the world and found out about Bree Newsome committing a beautiful act of civil disobedience and taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina.
A bit later, I was blasting a bootleg from an earlier show on this U2 tour (I know I definitely liked a concert if two days later all I want to listen to is that same band, preferably live, preferably recent). Bono’s been singing a bit of “The Hands that Built America” at the beginning of “Pride” on this tour, and it’s (I know I keep using this word) lovely; when the opening notes of “Pride” rang out on the boot I turned it WAY up, blasting down the highway, singing at the top of my lungs. “In the name of love! What more in the name of love?”
And then “Beautiful Day” – at the line “after the flood, all the colors came out” I just started weeping. I was picturing the photos I’d seen of the White House and other landmarks, not to mention the Facebook profile photos of many of my friends, all lit up in rainbow lights to celebrate marriage equality. Who’d have thought I would see this in my lifetime? There is still a lot of work – a LOT of work – left to be done. But what a moment, all the same, you know?
I was picturing Bree Newsome up on that flagpole, taking down that symbol of the past, knowing she would probably be arrested and the flag would probably be put back up – but also knowing that her act would help millions of people take heart and find the courage to take some action of their own. I was thinking about how heroes are just brave, crazy, ordinary humans who are willing to be seen.
And I was thinking about how, at those two rock shows, all the technology was fantastic and yet what was I over the moon about? A minute of joyous eye contact exchanged with the guitarist. The pure ringing sound created by human fingers against steel strings, amplified a millionfold to become a clarion call. I thought about what it means to be human, what it means to put yourself out there, what it means to acknowledge the tension (a tension essential for both activism and rock & roll) between the need for independence and individuality and the longing for community, acceptance, love.
After the flood, all the colors came out. It was a beautiful day.
Driving down the highway, weeping so freely I had to pull over and get myself together before I could go on. Everything was just washing over me in a great flood, and I couldn’t stop it and I didn’t want to stop it. My heart felt open and my eyes felt open and I was holding so much gratitude for everything that is good in this world. And that’s a lot.
Oh! You look SO BEAUTIFUL tonight… you look so beautiful, rock & roll. You look so beautiful, those precious nights when you catch yourself fully living in the moment. You look so beautiful, humans who push themselves to the limit of what they are afraid of doing, what they need to do. Humans who take risks like pulling down symbols that hurt the people they love. Like singing for all you’re worth whether you are a rock star with bronchitis or a middle-aged lady in the middle of a crowd. Like facing headlong the breaking and the broken places in your heart, and making art out of them, and using that to bring people together somehow. You look so beautiful, humans who hurt each other and love each other and fight with and for each other. You look so beautiful tonight.
Thank you, U2. I needed that.
Crappy cellphone photos by Anne Haines; videos as credited on YouTube