My Five Nights with U2

by Kevin Pang

Chicago Tribune (TNS)

7 July 2015

I attended all five shows of U2’s Chicago residency -- nearly 12 hours of Bono & Co. in the flesh -- that ended Thursday night at the United Center.
 

CHICAGO — The final tally: 123 songs. This includes five performances each of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Beautiful Day” and “With or Without You,” earworms that have now burrowed deep inside my brain and sought asylum.

I attended all five shows of U2’s Chicago residency — nearly 12 hours of Bono & Co. in the flesh — that ended Thursday night at the United Center. My motivation was neither born of excessive fandom nor a death wish. It was to reconcile a nagging feeling lodged in my psyche.

You might remember last September when U2 gave away its new album “Songs of Innocence” by uploading it into people’s iTunes — for free, mind you — a controversy in retrospect blown out of proportion, an overreaction that merited the old trope, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

I was excited to be gifted a new U2 album. My problem came after pressing play. Even with Danger Mouse at the production helm, I found the effort lukewarm, the sound of a band trading in its experimental verve of the ‘90s for the color-by-numbers homogeneity of top 40 radio. It wasn’t that I hated the album, more so I played through “Songs of Innocence” twice and forgot about it. At least hating evokes an emotion. A far worse response to art would be indifference.

My nagging feeling was about arriving at a crossroads. My love for U2 has trended downward for nearly 15 years. This latest record brought it perilously close to the 50 percent line. The question I hoped five live shows would answer: Should I still be a fan of U2 in 2015?

U2’s Innocence + Experience tour is a 20-city, six-month circuit through North America and Europe, their first indoor arena shows in a decade. To gain a fuller perspective, I sat in the lower bowl a dozen rows up, stood 10 feet from the stage on the arena floor, and watched one show high above in the 300 level.

From all angles, what strikes you immediately is the spectacle of the staging. The setup comprises two stages on either ends of the arena, with a walkway spanning the length of the floor. Hovering over this walkway is a 95-by-30 foot transparent video screen, in which band members could enter through the side and be one with the graphics.

At one point, Bono is inside the screen walking through his childhood neighborhood in (and figuratively on) “Cedarwood Road.” Images of cherry blossoms, cars and joggers scroll past Bono, as if he’s Super Mario in a videogame version of his life. It’s one of several moments that elicited whoas from my seating neighbors. Another was during “Until the End of the World,” the best track from their best album “Achtung Baby,” where the staging achieved Beijing Olympic opening ceremony-level audaciousness. Here, The Edge strutted with his guitar inside the screen while standing on the image of Bono’s outstretched palm, as torn pages from The Psalms, Ulysses and Alice in Wonderland rained down like confetti (it’s meant to evoke the time the Sarajevo library was fire-bombed during the Bosnian War). The best view wasn’t up-close from the arena floor ($65 tickets), nor high up in the upper deck where intimacy gets lost ($95). The optimum sightline — surprise, surprise! — is located in the lower bowl, home to the priciest tickets ($275).

For the bulk of U2’s new songs, the sum of music and visuals is greater than its parts. There’s a track from their album called “Iris (Hold Me Close)” that Bono wrote about his mother, who died when he was 14. I didn’t think much of the song on the record. But at the show, you see a young Iris Hewson in scratchy old home movies, and the live Bono superimposed next to his late mother, a powerful moment indeed. It’s as if “Songs of Innocence” was a Broadway soundtrack that needed the context of a live staging to be appreciated.

The flipside of this is unlike, say, a Bruce Springsteen show, there’s little deviation from the setlist. The songs form a rigid narrative of music, pictures and choreography — much of the show’s first half is a mini-act moving from Bono’s neighborhood, to his bedroom, to Northern Ireland, to the Berlin Wall. Implicitly, an extended residency suggests interchangeable setlists and a deep dive into the back catalog. Out of roughly 25 songs performed each U2 show, a good 20 are nightly fixtures.

After five shows, what you thought were moments of spontaneity are actually carefully blocked and rehearsed. The way Bono Fred-Astaires his mic stand, the manner in which he flings water into the crowd, his fondness for Bono-isms like: “America isn’t just a country, it’s an idea.” I even noticed The Edge and Adam Clayton taking their jackets off at the exact moment every show (always after “I Will Follow,” song no. 4).

Cynicism could have set in, but I was in the strange position of a U2 binge. Most fans likely could only afford one show, and they would approach it with fresh eyes.

On show number three Sunday, I stood next to a thirtysomething couple who drove to Chicago from Cincinnati. Their fandom of U2 could be measured in decades, and yet this was their first live show. I watched them the entire night, and the look on their faces was familiar.

My first U2 show was during the 2001 Elevation tour at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, two months after 9/11. The concert was a needed respite for an audience still raw with heartache. Emotions welled up from the start of that show, ballooning and pressurizing over several hours, until The Edge began that indelible guitar riff of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and the band came in on that high C-sharp hit, and — boom! — all the lights came on bright, and it was a release valve-moment of such joy and exaltation it left most in the arena a sniffling mess. I certainly lost it.

I watched that couple from Cincinnati — and 20,000 more people around me at the United Center — pumping their arms to the skies during “Pride (In the Name of Love)” as Bono paraded the gay pride flag. Then came “City of Blinding Lights,” another song that reached for the rafters, with its “Streets”-like intro building to a literal blinding lights moment, and an oh-ooh-oh chorus you can’t help but sing along. Not since the Stanley Cup finals has the Madhouse on Madison hosted the happiest people on planet Earth.

The fans there weren’t questioning U2’s relevance in contemporary music, nor expressing outrage over a $45 souvenir T-shirt, nor docking the band for playing the same songs night after night. They were witnessing a Broadway musical under the guise of a rock and roll show, from a band who at their best, can give you the biggest religious high this side of the secular arts.

Yeah, I’d wait in line to buy those tickets.

———

NIGHT 1 SETLIST — JUNE 24

1. The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
2. The Electric Co.
3. Vertigo
4. I Will Follow
5. Iris (Hold Me Close)
6. Cedarwood Road
7. Song For Someone
8. Sunday Bloody Sunday
9. Raised By Wolves
10. Until The End Of The World
11. The Wanderer
12. Invisible
13. Even Better Than The Real Thing
14. Mysterious Ways
15. Elevation
16. Ordinary Love
17. Every Breaking Wave
18. Bullet The Blue Sky
19. Pride (In the Name of Love)
20. Beautiful Day
21. With Or Without You
22. City Of Blinding Lights
23. Where The Streets Have No Name
24. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

NIGHT 2 SETLIST — JUNE 25

1. The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
2. Out of Control
3. Vertigo
4. I Will Follow
5. Iris (Hold Me Close)
6. Cedarwood Road
7. Song For Someone
8. Sunday Bloody Sunday
9. Raised By Wolves
10. Until The End Of The World
11. The Wanderer
12. Invisible
13. Even Better Than The Real Thing
14. Mysterious Ways
15. Angel of Harlem
16. Volcano
17. Every Breaking Wave
18. Bullet The Blue Sky
19. Pride (In the Name of Love)
20. Beautiful Day
21. Bad
22. With Or Without You
23. City Of Blinding Lights
24. Where The Streets Have No Name
25. One

NIGHT 3 SETLIST — JUNE 28

1. The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
2. Gloria
3. Vertigo
4. I Will Follow
5. Iris (Hold Me Close)
6. Cedarwood Road
7. Song For Someone
8. Sunday Bloody Sunday
9. Raised By Wolves
10. Until The End Of The World
11. The Wanderer
12. Invisible
13. Even Better Than The Real Thing
14. Mysterious Ways
15. Desire
16. Lucifer’s Hands
17. Every Breaking Wave
18. Bullet The Blue Sky
19. Pride (In the Name of Love)
20. Beautiful Day
21. All I Want Is You
22. With Or Without You
23. City Of Blinding Lights
24. Where The Streets Have No Name
25. One

NIGHT 4 SETLIST — JUNE 29

1. The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
2. The Electric Co.
3. Vertigo
4. I Will Follow
5. Iris (Hold Me Close)
6. Cedarwood Road
7. Song For Someone
8. Sunday Bloody Sunday
9. Raised By Wolves
10. Until The End Of The World
11. The Wanderer
12. Invisible
13. Even Better Than The Real Thing
14. Mysterious Ways
15. The Crystal Ballroom
16. Sweetest Thing
17. Every Breaking Wave
18. Bullet The Blue Sky
19. Pride (In the Name of Love)
20. Beautiful Day
21. With Or Without You
22. City Of Blinding Lights
23. Where The Streets Have No Name
24. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

NIGHT 5 SETLIST — JULY 2

1. The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
2. Gloria
3. Vertigo
4. I Will Follow
5. Iris (Hold Me Close)
6. Cedarwood Road
7. Song For Someone
8. Sunday Bloody Sunday
9. Raised By Wolves
10. Until The End Of The World
11. The Wanderer
12. Invisible
13. Even Better Than The Real Thing
14. Mysterious Ways
15. California (There Is No End To Love)
16. Ordinary Love
17. Every Breaking Wave
18. Bullet The Blue Sky
19. Pride (In the Name of Love)
20. Beautiful Day
21. Bad
22. With Or Without You
23. City Of Blinding Lights
24. Where The Streets Have No Name
25. 40

Topics: u2
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