By Miguel Gálvez
LOS ANGELES, CA The challenge is not to make it to the top, but to stay up there, and no other band in the planet has it any clearer than U2. Since the eighties, when they exceeded all the limits of global popularity with their iconic album The Joshua Tree, and their subsequent international tour earned them the title of “Rock’s Hottest Ticket” on the cover of Time magazine, far from merely enjoy the ephemeral intoxication that comes along with fame, they have dedicated themselves to reinvent their band again and again in an effort to remain a relevant group that by now has crossed musical, geographical, ideological, and even technological and chronological boundaries.
It happened during the first minutes of 1990 in a concert U2 offered in their native Dublin. At the dawn of the new decade, Bono surprised everyone when right from the stage said it was time to “Go away and dream it all over again… To forget about the past and celebrate the future.” After a couple of years of silence they returned with Achtung Baby, an album widely recognized as even better than their Joshua Tree, and they embarked on an extravagant and media-intoxicated world tour called ZOO TV, that unlike the simplicity of their shows in the eighties transformed the standard of rock and pop shows in something never seen before.
Thirty-six video screens combined images of the band playing live, satellite connections and flashing text phrases with ironic, almost subliminal, messages. Colorful Trabant cars -The sign of failed communism- hung from the stage to serve not only as an important décor element, but as the lighting system foundation, and a smaller stage placed right in the middle of the crowd allowed by the first time that intimate approach every artist seeks with the fans. The whole stage and show was designed to instill a sensory overload in its audience to show the scope and manipulation of mass media.
For their next tour, PopMart, U2 invested several million dollars to develop a new technology experiment that eventually became an article of common use: The LED screen. The result of this venture was not only one of the first screens of this type, but the largest at the time with 170 feet wide and 56 feet high. This colossal screen was placed behind the stage to project animations and footage of the band playing live. The next tour, Elevation, presented a fully minimalist stage design whose main intention was to put the audience in the middle of the show and as close as possible to the band. During the Vertigo Tour the essence of proximity to the public was preserved and the technological highlight consisted of seven retractable see-through LED based bead curtains that projected images and text without obstructing the view of the band playing live.
Between 2009 and 2011 their 360-degree Tour travelled around the globe with a massive structure 167 feet high holding the audio system and a cylindrical screen, the stage was surrounded by a circular ramp and bridges hovering over the crowd. The 360-degree design and placement of the stage towards the center of the stadium allowed to increase up to 25% the capacity, which helped make this tour the most watched show in history with 7.2 million tickets sold worldwide and the most commercially successful with $736 million in sales; figures that beat the historic Rolling Stones who were en route at the same time.
So after almost 40 years of career, nearly 1200 concerts throughout the world, but especially after that long reputation of best live rock band, for their new tour called Innocence + Experience which launched last May 14 in Vancouver and recently offered five shows in Los Angeles, of which I witnessed three, this time U2 decided to start their new show illuminated only by a single and simple light bulb. The intention according to Bono, The Edge, Adam and Larry is to bring the audience to the late seventies Dublin, the city where their career began by playing in school gymnasiums and small clubs when they were just four teenagers unable to perform songs from famous bands, so they had to make their own. The town with loyal friends who have accompanied them for years, friends that in Bono’s words were already there when they found the first loves and the first fights in the playground. That old Dublin that contrasted the innocence of childhood and youth with the violence of an ancient conflict that used violent terrorist acts, in which innocent people lost their lives grotesquely by simply being in the wrong place and time.
And once again, technology that in the future will surely become so common and obsolete, as the LED TV's in our living rooms, helps U2 to bring the audience throughout this autobiographical journey in which they present their new album Songs of Innocence along with hits from their near and distant glorious past, and to prevent monotony they replace around five songs from one night to another, occasionally surprising the crowd with something they have not played in many years.
Regarding the new stage the first thing that stands out is that there is no better or worse place to appreciate the show, just a different view of it. And as the night goes on, the crowd is surprised to find out there are actually four stages that U2 uses throughout the nearly two and a half hours they play.
The first is a traditional stage they call "I" for "Innocence," the second is a small circular stage in the opposite end of the arena, which because of its lighting they called "E" for "Experience." Connecting these two stages there is a catwalk that Bono, Adam and The Edge use to perform just inches away from the fans, and that it turns into a third stage when the whole band performs an extraordinary new version of their hit Sunday Bloody Sunday. High above the catwalk a huge screen projects images to both sides of the venue, and it is on this screen where we can find the fourth stage and one of the greatest innovations that make this show spectacular, because it doesn’t just projects images, it also allows U2 to get inside and play live from the very middle. And combining their live presence with animations especially prepared for each song, the show takes the crowd to the places where Bono grew up and honors the memory of the people killed in the worst terrorist attack in Ireland’s history.
The second major innovation of this tour is found in the way they are managing the audio, because they have placed the speaker system on an elliptical framework hung from the venue’s roof. This ensures that every space in the arena receive the same quality and sound level. Historically, in every concert the audience near the stage was so close to the speakers that sound could be deafening, and those in the back rows were not close enough to receive the optimum audio. But with this new method, which is sure to become the standard, you can hear with great clarity and sharpness every instrument and voice regardless of the location and cost of the ticket.
Writing about the band and their quality of execution would be redundant. Fortunately that obsession with relevance continues to drive their search for new ways to reinvent themselves and to go where no one has gone before. And despite that early youth they seek to rediscover with this new album and tour was left behind many years ago, they still have the raw energy and vitality that turned them into “Rock’s Hottest Ticket” and not even the number of incidents that have accompanied the band in recent months... The door that was completely torn away in a private flight with Bono aboard last November, the catastrophic cycling accident four days later that left Bono with titanium plates and unable to play guitar, the overly criticized and controversial free launch of their new album via Apple, the dead of Larry’s father the same week of the start of this tour, The Edge accidentally falling off the stage at the end of the opening night in Vancouver, or the sudden death of their tour manager on May 27, have managed to overshadow what already is another great tour in U2’s history.
By Miguel Gálvez