Thursday, October 08, 2009

U2 360 and Rock's Battle for Intimacy in Stadiums

[Scott talks about U2 again, but since he knows we do not have so many U2 fans around here -- myself included -- he makes it a lot about the whole notion of live concerts. I wanted to do a review of Planetary 27 today, but the day got away from me. Expect one shortly, and thanks Scott for filling in.]

There are many who would consider themselves hip in the musical sense who would be quick to turn their nose up to stadium rock. They might champion clubs or small theatres as the only place to really hear music; the only place where a band can truly make a connection with the audience. Such aspersions are easy to make when one lives in a large city where, on any given night, several hot, up and coming acts can be found performing to packed houses and seeing them is as easy as catching a train across town. However, it’s not quite as easy for those of us who live a more rural existence. For me, Washington DC would probably be the closest locale to see such a performance and that would mean a 5 hour drive NOT including beltway traffic.

So, for many of us, the only chance we have to see a ‘real live Rock N’ Roll’ show is to catch the major artists who stage massive arena and stadium tours (and, usually, this still involves a drive of at least a couple of hours). Perhaps the most challenging venue for an artist to achieve a true connection with the audience is the stadium. Since the Beatles first played Shea Stadium only to be drowned out by the screams of their fans, major artist have struggled to be ‘heard’ in stadiums. The first step was simple: play louder. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that, to the people in the cheaper seats, the band themselves might as well be ants.

Bands like Pink Floyd and others in the 70s were the first to make major strides in taking on the stadium. With the advent of laser light shows they were able to create a larger presence in the stadium, however, this was often done at the expense of removing THE BAND from the mix. They gave the audience the music and the visuals but sort of removed themselves from the equation. Pink Floyd even addressed this when they toured for The Wall when, for the first song or two of the set, the audience was watching, not the band, but a group of masked doppelgangers on the stage only to have the band revealed later (the Wall, itself, was, on one level, a metaphor of Waters feeling of increasing isolation between the band and the audience). Still, the end result of this was, more or less, just giving the audience something pretty to look at while they listened to the music. Later innovations like giant view screens improved the situation somewhat but, ultimately, created the effect of going to a rock show to watch the very concert you were attending on TV.

U2 are a band that have strived to maintain a connection with their audience; after all, they emerged from the punk scene of the late ‘70s, a movement that largely sought to tear down the barrier between audience and performer (in many ways a direct reaction to the aforementioned stadium spectacle of bands like Pink Floyd). The band’s name itself, on one level, is meant to be a play on the audience’s involvement. So, when they reached stadium status in the late 80s, they found themselves struggling with maintaining a connection to their audience.

The band’s first attempt to take on the stadium was the Zoo TV tour. Bono once said something along the lines of how, during the Joshua Tree era, they found themselves being swallowed up by the stadium while the ultimate goal of Zoo TV was to allow them to swallow up the stadium. Like many tours that had gone before, it used massive view screens and innovative visuals. However, it forced the audience to engage what they were seeing. In one of the centerpieces of the show, “The Fly”, words and images were flashed on the screen in a manner that forced the audience to piece together what they were seeing in order to find meaning (or, in the case of the random channel hopping during “Even Better Than The Real Thing”, finding meaning in the meaningless).

The band (mostly Bono) would, not only appear on the giant screens themselves, but would interact with the various images displayed upon them. The result took the tradition of Rock N’ Roll Shape-Throwing to a whole new level. And yet, amongst all the spectacle, the authenticity of the band’s older material like “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” were still able to shine through like beacons of light in the storm of visuals, often providing a welcome respite from the bombardment of images endured for the majority of the show. It is quite telling that the band chose to close the majority of the shows on this tour with a subdued, almost meditative, rendition of “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”

If Zoo TV could be considered the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ of rock tours, the band’s next outing would be its ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. During Pop Mart, the band tried to raise the level of the spectacle beyond even what had been seen in Zoo TV. However, the design was so garish and the imagery so indulgent that, this time, they not only swallowed the stadium in the spectacle, they also swallowed themselves.

Pop Mart’s failure would lead the band to abandon stadiums (at least in the US) for the next two tours. Both Elevation and Vertigo echoed the albums which they were in support of in a ‘back to basics’ approach. It’s not that there were no high tech visuals used during these shows, but they stayed in the background for most of the show. Still, even in arenas, the band strove to bring the audience closer. The ‘heart’ and ‘circle’ ramps utilized in these tours allowed the band to walk out and be among their audience (not to mention providing a safer and more comfortable environment for those of us on the floor).

And so, that brings us to U2 360; the band’s first stadium tour in over a decade. The greatest innovation of this tour is a structure alternately referred to as ‘the spaceship’ or ‘the claw’; a massive, four-legged structure which stands over 160 feet tall that stands above the stage. Suspended underneath the structure is a screen, about thirty feet tall but capable of stretching to closer to 60 at various points during the show, which is viewable from 360 degrees. Not only is this spectacular to look at but, more importantly, it allows the band to play in the round thus playing more closely to their audience than would normally be possible in a stadium setting (not to mention, making more seating available). In contrast, the size of the Pop Mart screen would have made such a seating arrangement impossible. And, for the first time in two decades, the band actually played within the commonwealth of Virginia. And so, it came to pass, that I went to their concert in Charlottesville this past Thursday (for you sports fans, a joke courtesy of my brother: “U2 are playing UVA this Thursday… They’re favored by 20”… it’s my understanding their team hasn’t been doing so well.)

But was the show any good? Well, I won’t lie… It’s not the best U2 show I’ve been to (that title goes the Charlotte, NC show of 2005), in fact, it’s probably my least favorite of the three shows I’ve attended but, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it (for the record, I did manage to have the best seat I’ve ever had at this show; I was on the floor and managed to find a nice little spot by the ramp surrounding the stage which gave me plenty of opportunities to see all four members of the band up close).

One of the keys to big stadium shows is the selection of an appropriate set list; artists like Springsteen, U2 and REM have become masters of creating set lists that are both career spanning and, yet, still have a natural flow to them. The first trick is getting in the new stuff; on previous tours U2 have made the first part of the set top heavy with new material. This has often been called a daring movie when it is, in fact, an ingenious one: if you don’t want people taking bathroom breaks during the new songs, put them at the beginning when the energy is highest and people are least likely to leave their seats. However, while earlier dates on this tour followed a similar practice, by the time arrived in Charlottesville the new material had become more spread out over the show’s two hour duration: the band opened with “Breathe” (the best song on the new album) but very quickly pulled out old favorites like “Beautiful Day” and “Mysterious Ways” before playing “Get On Your Boots”, the first single off the No Line On The Horizon, then switching off to more old favorites before breaking out more tracks from the new album. To their credit, this never seemed forced and there was never a sense of ‘and now something off the new album’.

Next, there are the big hits, and all the usual suspects, with the exception of “Pride (In The Name of Love)” were there. But, of course, there are also those of use who want to hear lesser known fan favorites and, in this case, the band delivered with a stunning performance of “The Unforgettable Fire” (this is the first tour that the song has been played on in nearly two decades and one of the highlights of the show as far as I’m concerned). And then there are the hardcore fans like myself who want the deep cuts and we were not disappointed either as the band broke out “Your Blue Room” from the little known Passengers album (a side project with Brian Eno) complete with a prerecorded guest vocal from one of the astronauts aboard the international space station, and the rarely played Achtung Baby track “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”.

And there were plenty of surprises as well, rather than playing the album version of the No Line track “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” the band played a dance remix of the song. Personally, I would have rather heard a more traditional version but, in terms of closing the distance with the audience, it did create the effect of the show becoming a sort of dance party for the duration of the performance with Bono singing snippets of ‘Thankyoufalletinmebemyself’ during the intro. Even Larry Mullen Jr. got into the act and patrolled the ramp circling the stage with a single bongo drum allowing him to get closer to the audience than he normally would stationed behind his drum kit. Was it a little silly? Yes, but as Bono says in that very song, “The right to be ridiculous is something that I hold dear”

As to whether or not you like the dance mix version better, I’ll let you be the judge:

Well, that’s all well and good but how did the band sound? Well, given the Edge, Adam and Larry are one of the most reliable combos in rock there is only one variable in terms of the musical quality of the band’s shows: Bono’s voice. Bono has one of the most distinctive voices in rock, unfortunately much of the reason behind this is the fact that, particularly on the band’s older material, he sings beyond his range. Couple this with the fact that he lacks formal training as a singer and, sometimes, his voice just gives out (something that becomes even more commonplace given the scale of a stadium show). He was in fine form for the first half of the show but then it became apparent that he was struggling. During “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” he handed vocal duties over to the audience for most of the first two verses. Still, this was not a huge impairment; his strain was notable on songs that were more difficult vocally like “Stuck In A Moment” and “One” but, for the most part, he managed to sing the songs well enough and even managed to deliver quite powerful vocal performances on “The Unforgettable Fire” and, the evening’s closing number, “Moment of Surrender” (possibly the most beautiful song the band have recorded since “One”).

However, the B-man’s vocal difficulties provided yet another opportunity for the band to close that gap between audience and performer. I’m reminded of a story from the late 80s where an ambitious fan jumped on stage and attempted to play guitar on “With or Without You.” From what I remember of the story, Bono’s response was something like, “not this song. Any song but this song.” At the time, his connection to the tune was too personal, he wasn’t willing to give it up; he was playing it, not for his audience, but for himself. However, as time has gone by, things have changed. Aesthetically speaking, “With or Without You” should probably be cut from the set (or at least radically rearranged); Bono just doesn’t have the range anymore. However, it is one of the band’s most enduring songs, people expect to hear it and they want to hear it the way they remember it. So, the band almost always play the song and when it reaches its climax (for lack of a better term I’m going to call it the Whoa-oh-oh-oh part) Bono lets the audience take over on vocal duties and, I’ve got to tell you, there’s something damn near transcendent about being in an audience of 50,000 strong singing that part of the song in unison, its a part of the magic of a these sorts of big stadium shows that I’m just not sure club shows really have anything to compare with. So, in a reversal of the story I just told, Bono is no longer singing the song for himself, he’s not even singing it for us; WE are singing it FOR HIM and if that doesn’t close the distance between rock gods and their audience, I don’t know what does.

Set List:
Breathe, Get On Your Boots, Mysterious Ways, Beautiful Day / The Hands That Built America (snippet), No Line On The Horizon, Magnificent, Elevation, Your Blue Room, New Year's Day, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of, The Unforgettable Fire, City Of Blinding Lights, Vertigo, I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight, Sunday Bloody Sunday, MLK, Walk On

Encores: One / Amazing Grace (snippet), Where The Streets Have No Name, Ultra Violet (Light My Way), With Or Without You, Moment of Surrender

I’ll leave you with a couple of highlights, a clip of “The Unforgettable Fire” from the Barcelona show that really showcases the set up and “Moment of Surrender” which is from the very show I attended (God Bless youtube!).


Joe Gualtieri said...

Thursday, I saw the Manic Street Preachers, a stadium band in England touring, play a 650 person capacity club in Boston closing their first US tour in a decade with everyone singing along to "A Design For Life" and it was magic, the best moments at one of the best non-R.E.M. concerts I've ever been to.

In contrast, the second time I saw Radiohead, playing the former Great Woods Center (an amphitheater), the crowd sang along to "Creep" and it was, well, creepy.

Of the non-club shows I've gone to, only R.E.M.'s really managed that sense of intimacy in a large venue, and I think it's because of Michael Stipe's very conversational stage style. Radiohead, when they carrying their own stadium touring Kid A/mnesiac, and Roger Waters were excellent, but there was still more of a sense of watching and being less involved.

Which isn't to say club shows are always great. I've seen Spiritualized twice in clubs, and they were awful both times. Interpol was very akin to seeing Waters or early Radiohead, it was dark and gorgeous, but not engaged. The performer still makes a difference, small venue or no.

scottmcdarmot said...

I would have to agree with you about the artists making a difference, Springsteen is able to make that kind of a connection to a stadium audience and he does it with nothing more than a bare stage... well, that and best damn backing band in rock n' roll which has now grown in size (the touring version has around a dozen members) to where they are definitely 'big' enough to fill a stadium.

Has REM every done a Stadium tour though? I've seen them play ampitheatres (in fact I've only seen them play ampitheatres) and, personally, I've always felt that arena shows, if the band stages them properly, put very little distance between audience and performer.