U2 in space: further thoughts on tour launch

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By Neil McCormick, The Telegraph

Early on in discussions for the launch of the latest U2 tour, Bono floated the possibility that they would become the first band to play a gig on the moon. Larry shot that idea down however. He pointed out that there would be no atmosphere...

Ah, the old ones are ... well, not the best ... but the old ones, anyway.

Ever since U2 blew the possibilities for live event staging wide open with their multi-media Zoo TV tour, they have been caught in a peculiar trap: how to satisfy audience expectations for hi-tech, cutting edge spectacle while rooting the experience in the very human, emotional contact with fans that is at the heart of their appeal. In other words, how to make it bigger and more intimate at the same time.

U2 360 is their latest attempt to reconcile these sometimes conflicting demands. It cost over $100 million to stage, and the programme credits run to three tightly printed pages. Purpose built for stadiums, it is effectively a stage within the stadium space. U2 play in the round, roughly in the centre of the venue, complete with bridges and runways, so that no corner is too far from the action, with band members able to move easily around, constantly interacting with different sections of the crowd. Towering over them, standing on four great legs, is a construction housing the lighting rig, speakers and (rising and falling) a vast circular ring of screens on which are displayed artfully integrated images. The whole thing looks like a giant alien spaceship, and the sci-fi theme is pushed throughout, with the band entering to the countdown from David Bowie's Space Oddity and exiting to Elton John's Rocket Man. They even pause proceedings for a satellite video link up with the International Space Station in orbit around earth, allowing for some typical U2 calls for global peace and love with a futuristic twist.

There was (as there always is) some anxiety in the U2 camp during the countdown to blast off. The last time U2 kicked off a tour in stadiums (as opposed to arenas) was PopMart in 1997, with the Las Vegas launch turning into something of a disaster that took a couple of weeks on the road to remedy. It drew their worst live reviews ever, but by the time I caught up with the production in San Francisco, it was so mind blowing that Liam Gallagher (who was supporting with Oasis) stood on the mixing desk with his mouth hanging open, going "**** me!" throughout. With a production of this scale, its actually a bit unfair to review opening night. There are so many elements to the show, it might be considered more akin to a big theatrical production, where the tradition is that previews run without reviews for a couple of weeks of fine tuning, before the critics are allowed to take their seats. There is no such grace period for a rock band as newsworthy as U2, but they have been at this long enough to know what is expected, and arrived in Barcelona two weeks ago to get ready for lift off.

On opening night at the Nou Camp in Barcelona, it didn't quite all go according to plan (there were longuers in the set, musical mistakes and minor technical hitches) yet the audience was in indulgent mood, pasting over glitches with singalongs so loud and enthusiastic they almost drowned out the band. 90,000 people raising their voices as one is something to behold, an all enveloping, emotionally uplifting testament to the power and universality of music. And whenever the band, staging and audience came together, it hit home with breathtaking power. When U2 played 'Vertigo', the stadium seemed to physically shake with 90,000 human beings jumping up and down in unison.

Other personal highlights for me included the roaring opening song 'Breathe', a stadium punk version of 'No Line On The Horizon', an intimate, soulful 'In A Little While' (with really great singing from a vocalist right on top of his game), a singalong 'Angel Of Harlem' reconfigured as a tribute to Michael Jackson (with Bono delivering an impressive falsetto 'Don't Stop Til You Get Enough' and thankfully resisting the temptation to moonwalk), a kind of stadium karaoke call and response version of 'Unknown Caller' and a brave, understated ending with the gorgeous and strange 'Moments Of Surrender' (which suffered a little from Bono's by then slightly ravaged vocal). Yet I couldn't quite shake the sense of a band in some kind of period of transition, caught between the crowd pleasing epic rock of their greatest hits and some braver, weirder, more atmospheric and understated musical future. And I was not convinced by an almost dads-at-the-disco techno remix of 'I'll Go Crazy', with Larry Mullen Jnr going walkabout with a bongo. Still, it is impossible to dwell on reservations surrounded by 90,000 fans on their feet, roaring and waving their fists in the air, while an alien space ship somehow turns into the biggest disco glitterball the world has ever seen.

At the core of this hi-tech spectacle, holding it all together, providing the conduit between audience and band, the beating heart of the music, is Bono. He is one of those rare human beings who seems to have the personality and charisma to fill a stadium all by himself. Bruce Springsteen is the only other performer I have seen who can pull this trick off so effectively, the trick being there is no real trick at all. They are performers whose sense of service to the audience means that they give up every bit of themselves, putting so much effort and emotion into the moment that, by some universal sense of empathy and fair play, we are almost beholden to return the feeling in kind. With songs as the link between all the individuals in the venue, these extraordinary frontmen become our conduit to a communal moment of surrender.

At the end of the night, Bono appeared for encores wearing an LED suit that fired red laser beams in every direction. When he left the stage, the heat and sweat of his body had somehow fused the controls, so that he found he couldn't turn the jacket off. Bundled into a people carrier for a quick exit, he was last seen disappearing down a Spanish highway, firing random lasers through tinted windows into the dark sky. It seemed a curiously fitting exit, as the hi tech and the human fused in unpredictable fashion. The future never quite works the way you want it to.

© 2009 Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on July 3, 2009 6:07 PM.

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