Under the Big Top

Happy New Year, and please welcome our guest writer Nikki back -

By  Nikki Vanasse

Blackstone, MA

Crew Pass - ( Working Crew)U2’s convictions about live performance began even before the roots of their calling took hold. When teenagers form a band, they are most concerned with such details as learning their craft (U2 knew all of three chords and Adam barely knew how to pedal a bass), getting gigs, and making enough money to score a decent meal. For U2, it started with lighting.  The lighting had to be just right.  They obsessed with the lighting!  The visual aesthetic was nothing short of critical. The most recognizable show from their past, before The Joshua Tree tour, was the stage awakening that was the War Tour.  Red floors, white flags, stage climbing, camouflage draped over stage equipment; they were a band making a statement.  You see, it’s what they’ve always done. Statements about politics, religion, pop culture.  It should be no surprise to any hardcore fan that the shows evolved into what they are today.  The band’s fundamental philosophy was that the show had to be magnetic, keep everyone’s attention, and accessible to everyone.

Since the late 70’s when the boys were cutting their teeth on the local circuit, U2 always sought intimacy with their audience. The band performed at venues such as Dandelion Market in Dublin, Mount Temple, Trinity College, churches, youth clubs, and community centers mainly to provide access to the younger fans who essentially couldn’t get into the licensed pubs because they were simply too young.

U2 was born during a time when punk was on fire and rock bands were redefining the live rock show. In the late 60’s, Pink Floyd paved the way for the epic visual rock show followed by celebrated bands and artists such as Genesis, The Velvet Underground, and David Bowie. Bono’s MacPhisto, Mirror Ball Man and the Boxer characters are reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s Green Man or David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust or Thin White Duke. While U2 was yet to venture into such elaborate performances, these were some of the influences that tilled the soil that would soon cultivate the seeds of the operation we see today with their most technologically ambitious 360 Tour.

The minimalist stage sets of the Boy, Gloria, and War tours became increasingly difficult as the popularity of the band grew when The Unforgettable Fire was released and the tour had to be planned. The size of the venues were increasing and it became progressively difficult to keep the spectacle low-key.

At this time, Bono’s stage clothes consisted of a black knit mesh shirt, black and white checkered or black leather pants, and the mod black leather boots you could find anywhere in Europe at that time. Ironically enough, Adam, who has always been known as the most posh of the band even from the moment he answered Larry Mullen Jr.’s ad for a bass player at Mount Temple, often looked like any other kid cruising the streets back then. Except for the striking bush of blonde curls! The Edge and Larry dressed just like any other teenager you could find in Dublin. Today, they are very well put-together.

With War, things started to get more refined. There was also a lot of stage climbing by Bono. While the Unforgettable Fire proved more of a challenge for the stage design they had loved and proven successful, they still managed to create a very specific mood and atmosphere with large backdrops and monochromatic banners hanging above the stage.  With the explosion of The Joshua Tree, U2 was catapulted into superstardom and with that success, were provided the financial leverage to start exploring new presentations for the stage.

Another Show, Another town, another whateverWillie Williams has been a collaborator with the band on all aspects of their show since 1983. He takes direction straight from the band. They have always been in charge. In U2 Show (Diana Scrimgeour), he states that audiences assume that everything is spontaneous and controlled by the band; that it’s easy to change up the show on a whim from one night to another.  Not so.  It’s a very tight operation. The music goes hand in hand with the presentation and while there is some breathing room, there is little of it.

Williams has worked with many of the heavy hitters in rock such as R.E.M., David Bowie, and The Rolling Stones.  He states that “U2 is unique among their peers in respect of their approach to performing.” They are included in the design process from the time the very first thread of an idea is casually raised until the end of the tour.  Just like they’ve always done from the very beginning.

Williams’ job is to bring art to the stage and between tours, he gathers ideas.  He just doesn’t worry about the art of the show but what kind of show it might be.  He knows that fans don’t necessarily want U2 to change, but they also don’t want them to repeat themselves, and that’s a tremendous challenge.  About a year out from the first scheduled date of the tour (which in my opinion is a relatively short time to pull something together as massive as Zoo TV, Pop Mart, or 360!), Williams and the band come together like old school chums and begin churning ideas.  One of the most challenging pieces is figuring what technology is available, or on the cusp of availability by the time the show hits the road.  There’s a rule the design unit follows:  to conform to three concepts until there is that one idea that continues to interest and excite them.  Thus, the production is born.

While the designs are being discussed, ideas are funneled down to the band’s production manager, Dennis Sheehan (with the band since 1982), who is simultaneously covering details such as seeking bids from fabrication companies as soon as the design is settled, making sure the budget is on track with the accountants, and leading discussions with the entire tour team so that they get the idea and feel of the show and get proactive about any potential problems, in order to get in front of the 8-ball a bit.

Production rehearsals get underway and the crew spends two to four weeks constructing the show.  When shows are as complex as Zoo TV/Pop Mart/360, it’s critical to practice the set-up so that the crew can become as efficient as possible and iron out any difficulties or issues with the process.  This saves time.  Time is money.  With the cost of the current tour at $750,000, it’s an important factor.

Control Room The production rehearsals are Williams’ opportunity to physically test all his concepts and plans regarding lighting, video effects, atmosphere…the mood and feel of the show.  Remember that throughout this entire process, everyone has input from the band to the entire tour team.  When the team says something might not work, it’s not always met with accord.  Even four weeks out from the launch of the tour, if lighting or staging isn’t quite right, this is a problem.  There isn’t much time to iron it out, or plead your case.  It’s a very intense period in the process.  This probably explains the rough edges at the start, if you’ve ever seen maybe the first few shows of any tour.

Finally, the band arrives at production rehearsals.  Set list at this point is Williams’ primary target.  While they all make agreements on how the show will open, what the middle will look and sound like, and how the show will end, the rest is open for some breathing room.  About one third of the set will be songs from the new album and they go to work making sense out of their history and decide which songs from their catalog can play into the context of the show.  The set list itself is a work of art.

The truth is so clear How does it all stay organized?  The hierarchy goes like this:  everyone who works on the tour is responsible to their department head (i.e. management, sound, accounts, lighting, video, back line, wardrobe, catering, drivers).  The department heads are responsible to the production/tour manager (Dennis Sheehan).  Sheehan answers to the band.  Everyone builds their own little piece of the show, the puzzle is put together and the rehearsals ensure it runs like a well-oiled machine.  

The fans by now have had a few months to stew on the music and get their frenzy up for the upcoming tour.  Rehearsals are completed, the machine is fired up and the show goes on the road!

Let us know if there is any specific production aspect you are curious about and we’ll see what we can do about bringing you the story!