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"No one in Dublin was interested in us and we came down here as a last resort." — Adam, on U2 winning the Limerick Civic Week Pop '78 Competition

What Has 4 Legs, in the Round?

New York Times
What do you want when you go to see your favorite band playing in a stadium? To hear the music clearly? To see the musicians, even if it's only on a screen because you're in a cheap seat at the back? For them to feel so comfortable on stage (their every Spinal Tappish whim assuaged) that they play spectacularly well? To forget that you're watching them with tens of thousands of people in a place where a ball is usually kicked around?

Whoever designs the set has to deliver all of that -- and more. As every extra day on tour costs money, the set must be installed and dismantled as quickly as possible, and shipped in the fewest possible trucks. The process also needs to be idiot-proof because most of the crew are hired locally and will only build it once. Financially it's a huge gamble, because the design concept is signed off on before a single ticket is sold.

The bill for U2's latest gamble is the $150 million it will cost to keep the band's 360 tour, which starts June 30 in Barcelona, on the road for 18 months. On past tours, U2 has adopted the conventional approach of building a stage at one end of the stadium. This time, the band will perform on a circular stage and runway in the middle. Perching above on four spindly legs will be a steel colossus bearing the lighting, speakers, cables and a giant conical video screen. Looking not unlike an alien sea monster, it is 50 meters high, or about 165 feet, weighs 390 tons and packs away into 180 trucks. (U2 is buying carbon offsets, but no one embarks on a rock tour with a clear eco-conscience.)

"Everyone who sees it says that it looks like something different," said Willie Williams, who has worked with U2 since 1982 and co-designed the set with the architect Mark Fisher, a veteran of Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones tours. "Tintin's rocket. The War of the Worlds. Cactus. Octopus. Claw. Whenever it started to look like something, Mark and I would push it in another direction. But it does look as though it has escaped from a giant space aquarium."

Rock tours weren't always so flashy. The Beatles performed at New York's Shea Stadium in 1965 on an open stage for a record 56,000 people, very few of whom could see or hear the band. It wasn't until the mid-1970s that bands like Yes and Pink Floyd introduced more sophisticated sound and sets. Like other acts emerging from the late 1970s punk movement, U2 spurned such theatricality for its first stadium shows in the late 1980s.

Theatricality took over on the 1991 Zoo TV tour, which was conceived by Mr. Williams and Mr. Fisher, in his first U2 project, as a dazzling satire of media culture with giant video screens. The 1996 PopMart set was even wilder. Parodying consumerism, it featured a huge lemon (from which the band had to escape by ladder in one show when it jammed), McDonald's "golden arches" and a gigantic L.E.D. screen. "At the time it was completely new, but every show looks like Zoo TV or PopMart now," said Mr. Williams. "We had to move on, and do something that would feel more powerful to the audience."

Playing in the round appealed. It is the best way of creating an illusion of intimacy in a crowd of up to 90,000 people, and will release some 20,000 extra seats in the space usually occupied by the stage. But it hadn't seemed feasible for U2 before. How do you build something strong enough to support so much kit without blocking the audience's view? The floating opera stages constructed on Lake Constance at Bregenz in Austria convinced Mr. Williams that it was technically possible. Stylistically, he was inspired by the four-legged arched structure of the 1961 Theme Building at Los Angeles airport. He sketched his ideas for Mr. Fisher to interpret.

Ever since he studied under Peter Cook, co-founder of the avant-garde architecture group, Archigram, in the 1960s, Mr. Fisher had wanted to create a portable tensile structure (that's archi-jargon for one with a flexible shape). The 360 set was his chance, and he clad the steel in a tensile fabric originally developed for Formula 1 motor racing. Green in daylight, it will reflect whatever color of light is shone on to it at night. The result evokes Archigram's fantastical 1964 project, the Walking City, which "strolled" around on teetering legs. It will not only give the audience a clear view of the band, but of one another across the stage, which doubles as the roof of a building that houses U2's instruments and the dozen technicians looking after them.

The audience will also see live footage of the show on the conical screen. From Zoo TV onward, screens have been the phallic symbols of rock tours. The entire stage of Nine Inch Nails' 2008 tour was an interactive screen of images generated by the band's movements. U2's new screen consists of 500,000 pixels mounted on interlocking panels. It will sit still for most of the show, then stretch downward, distorting the images as the panels fragment.

It will take a day to install the screen, stage and kit at each stadium. As the steel structure requires four days, three versions have been commissioned. While one is in use, another will be under construction at the next venue and the third in transit, to squeeze as many shows as possible into the tour.

"Our work is all to do with the logistics of building a very large piece of technical infrastructure in a very short time, and to make something interesting out of it," said Mr. Fisher. "Why do people go to shows like this in the digital age? It's for the huge collective experience, the social and spatial and memories. This set will contribute by creating a massive sense of anticipation and delivering an amazing kinetic performance."

© New York Times, 2009.