Welcome back to Music Monday!
Let me tell you a little something about the band U2: they are bae.
(GUYS. Spell-check on Microsoft Word recognizes the word “bae.” I can’t even.)
If you’re not hip with the lingo of today’s youth, “bae” is actually an acronym that stands for “before anyone/all else.” Like most internet slang, it has crept its way into young people’s spoken vocabulary, whether we like it or not. I sort of hate myself for using it, but in this case, it’s the darn truth. U2 is my very favorite. Before anyone else. You may have thought that honor would have gone to Mumford & Sons. But I have a longer history with U2.
It all started in 2003, when I was 12. I remember the stereo that my family used to own that sat on the room divider between our kitchen and living room. I know I listened to many an album on it. But the only album that I specifically remember listening to with that stereo was U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind album, in 2003, when I was 12. My dad had been listening to it quite a bit, and I usually liked my dad’s taste in music. So I gave it a try. The first track that really stood out to me was track 3, “Elevation.” I’ll admit it’s not U2’s finest tune. But 12-year-old me was enthralled by it. It was like having a fire lit under my feet. And I wanted more. So I listened to it a few more times. And then I listened to more of U2’s discography and I fell in love with it. It got inside of me: the lyrics, the guitar work, the drum beats, everything. As I entered into my teen years, U2 became a sort of security blanket to me, my way of feeling comfortable in my own skin as I realized that I was different than most of my peers. The band led me to other rock and roll artists and to rock and roll music in general. They were the first band that really shaped me. Other favorite bands have come and gone and my musical taste has expanded. But U2 will always be my very favorite.
As soon as I discovered U2, I knew I had to see them live one day. My time came in 2011, when I saw them on their U2360 Tour in Denver.
My second time came this past Thursday, when my sister and I caught them at their final night in Chicago on their iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour (ie Tour, for short).
The short and sweet review of the show: U2 can still put on a mind-blowing show.
But I’m not about short and sweet. Let’s get into the details.
ALL THE DETAILS.
(okay, the important ones, at least)
One thing I really appreciate about U2 that I haven’t seen with many other bands is that they always do something different with their stage set-up every time they tour. On their 360 Tour, since they were playing stadiums, their stage was set in an elaborate and enormous contraption that looked like a space ship, which displayed a spectacular light show with each song. The ie Tour is a smaller affair—indoor arenas, not stadiums—so the stage design was comparably low-key. But it was still engaging and offered the band plenty of space for creativity, and the audience plenty to look at. On one end of the arena floor was a traditional stage facing the audience, on the other end a small round stage (the “e” stage), with a catwalk connecting them. The centerpiece was a two-sided screen above the catwalk that played animations for several songs and that could lower and raise to allow the band to step inside, making them part of the visual experience.
At about 8:20 U2 took the stage—Bono entered the arena floor and started on the small “e” stage before making his way to the rest of the band as they kicked off with “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” the first track from their latest album, Songs of Innocence. That was followed by a few high-energy tunes before U2’s craftsmanship and showmanship took center-stage. Bono invited the crowd into his childhood (a recurring theme throughout Songs of Innocence) and the band took us on a tour of his youth. The screen above the catwalk played grainy home videos of Bono’s mother during “Iris (Hold Me Close)” and whimsical drawings of his childhood neighborhood during “Cedarwood Road” while he sang inside the screen, making him appear to be strolling down his street. From there, songs about their collective childhood experience of unrest in Ireland—“Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Raised By Wolves.”
The second half of the show kicked off with a performance of “Invisible” (from inside the screen, so they were almost…invisible. Heh.) before the band migrated to the “e” stage for some more intimate performances and moments. Bono pulled a girl from the barricade to dance with them during “Mysterious Ways” and to take video during “California (There Is No End to Love)” for their social streams. And the song “Every Breaking Wave” was performed with only The Edge on piano and Bono’s vocals. Stunning. After a few activist pep-talks from Bono, U2 pulled out a few more crowd-pleasers, like “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Beautiful Day,” and an encore featuring “City of Blinding Lights” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
Now for the short and sweet highlights!
- Their second track was “Gloria,” from their often-overlooked 1981 album October. They had played it for the first time in 10 years at an earlier Chicago show, but I was not expecting them to pull it out again for my show. I died. Several times.
- The first half concluded with my favorite U2 track, “Until the End of the World.” YES.
- Intermission was simply their 1993 collaboration with Johnny Cash called “The Wanderer” playing over the speakers, with animations of Johnny’s face playing on the screen. A super-short intermission, but I was delighted by the song choice.
- As Bono was introducing “Ordinary Love,” he prefaced it by saying “This song took second at The Oscars.” Poor guy is still bitter about it.
- Other tracks I did not expect them to play: “Bad,” “Bullet the Blue Sky.” SO GOOD.
- They concluded with “40,” from their album War. The first time I had seen their live rendition of it was when I watched their concert film from the Vertigo Tour in Chicago. I fell in love with it—Adam and The Edge swapped instruments, Bono shone a spotlight into the audience as they played, and the band exited one by one while the crowd continued singing the chorus. My show ended in the exact same way. Hearing 20,000 people pick the chorus back up after cheering U2 off the stage gave me goosebumps. What a beautiful moment.
U2 is one of those bands that seems to garner strong feelings from people—people either love them or hate them, for reasons related to both their music and Bono’s strong political activism. But no matter how you feel about them, it’s hard to deny their staying power and the timelessness of some of their songs. The way the crowd lit up during classics like “Beautiful Day,” “Pride (In the Name of Love),” and “With or Without You” is a testament to one of the things I love most about music. It’s one of the best things out there at uniting us. People latch on to a certain song or band and then they all come together at a concert and their stories become one as they join their voices and their hearts to the set list. And U2 has been at it for nearly 40 years, so their music has no doubt sparked stories in millions of people. You can tell by the variety of people who come to U2’s shows—lots of middle-aged folk who probably bought their records when they were first released, but also families with young children and plenty of young adults. All strangers, but still all, in a way, kindred spirits in their unique histories with the band. It’s a powerful and beautiful thing to behold.
I’ve heard Bono say a few times that he thinks that U2 has been teetering on the edge of irrelevance for the past several years. That might have some truth to it—their last few albums have failed to generate hit singles and sales of those last few albums have been relatively disappointing. But you wouldn’t know that from the number of fans that still come to their shows. I think there are several reasons for the continued success of their tours: the promise of old favorites in the set list, of course, but also the fact that U2 are live show architects. In addition to the band’s pure rock and roll energy, their tours are always conceptual and their shows are visually intriguing. All these things are on display on the ie Tour, and all of these things reminded me why U2 is my favorite band.
What about you? Have you caught any shows on U2’s iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour? What did you think? Or, who’s your favorite live act? Feel free to holler at me in the comments!