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Shaman, shyster, one of the greatest and most endearingly naked messianic complexes in rock and roll. -- Bruce Springsteen, on Bono, at U2's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction)

Column: off the record ..., vol. 15-671


off the record, from @U2

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is all about the Innocence + Experience tour. If you do not wish to have your innocence spoiled by experience, come back and read after you’ve seen the show.

Again, thanks for giving us your city to play with, and for everyone who’s come from so far away. Just all over the world people have been traveling in here. It’s just an amazing thing. Whatever’s going on, it’s a phenomenon equal to what’s going on on stage is what’s going on in the crowd, the U2 crowd. Very special people. Fun. Wish we could hang out more. Bono’s introduction to “One” in Vancouver, May 15, 2015

Compassion, forgiveness, transcendence and commencement are overarching themes in U2’s latest tour production. The teenage angst from U2’s youth is put on display for us to see as we take a walk down memory lane – both literally and figuratively. Meanwhile, the mature wisdom attempts to diffuse that anger while floating through it – also both literally and figuratively. The show is a hybrid of performance art and should be treated as more than a mere rock concert.

While there is a back-to-basics approach to the tour, there is nothing basic about it. Innocence + Experience set designer Es Devlin explained to the BBC, “When you arrive at this show, you’re going to be surprised there’s nothing there. … One of the things that the band talked us through was really how they first started working together as a band. How they would meet in various rooms in their houses. How they would walk along the street where some of them grew up and that turned into a series of sketches where we started to imagine this street actually materializing around them, and these rooms materializing around them and what you’ll see in the show is a screen that you’ve really barely been aware of because it’s been flown out of the way, starts to descend, and Bono walks up a ladder telling us a story. He talks directly to the audience like a narrator. Says to us, ‘Come back, come back to my street.’ And then the screen starts to materialize his street where he grew up around him. Drawings of the house where he grew up start to form as he walks through the screen and as he sings this song, “Cedarwood Road,” which is incredibly autobiographical.”

The stunning visual presentation is more than just a “mind mess,” as Bono described to the late Tony Fenton on TodayFM. It’s been widely reported the screen is a divider, but it divides on many planes: from left to right; up and down; inside and out; past and present; physical and spiritual; animation and reality; naiveté and wisdom; and more. Once the screen comes to life, it demands its audience pay complete attention to it like a young child demands your undivided attention. However, your attention is constantly divided between the scattering of the band members blended with the attention-grabbing screen. The screen itself will also divide to show three different visuals.

The two-act structure (although it really is three acts in total, including the encore) succinctly invites the audience into U2’s 1974 Dublin and transports us through the band’s career without us really noticing. Poignant and provocative, the audience is challenged to face the past so that wrongs can be made right to provide for a more hopeful future, whether it is politically, personally or spiritually. An example of the political challenge is the direct call for justice for the horrific Dublin car bombings in 1974. It was 41 years ago today that 33 people were killed and over 300 were injured by multiple car bombs set to explode around the same time. The band uses this specific incident to draw attention to the fact that no one has been brought to justice in the presentation of “Raised By Wolves.” Larry begins the song with 16 strikes of the drum, like a ticking bomb. When he raises the sticks for number 17, the bomb blast happens. May 17 is when the blasts happened. The blasts began around 5:30 p.m., the 17th hour.

The personal challenge can be seen throughout “Song For Someone,” where Bono’s son, Elijah, is featured as a young Bono in the bedroom of 10 Cedarwood Road. The animation shows him going around the house from the bedroom to the kitchen and living room, alone. Once he leaves the bedroom, a shadowed real-time Bono appears in the bedroom singing to his former self. Tender and heartbreaking, “Song For Someone” is used to impart wisdom upon a lonely young man who was trying to sort through life feeling alone. The visuals also have details like Clash and Kraftwerk posters as well as the symbolic lightbulb. At the end of the song, all fades away around young Bono as the words “there is a light, don’t let it go out” are sung.

During the second show in Vancouver on May 15, the spiritual challenge was presented in “Bad,” where the audience was invited to take any addictions and surrender them. Lighting director Willie Williams designed a breathtaking presentation using simple white lighting to communicate spirit entering the stage, entering the room and entering the soul. The stage glowed white during the chorus, as if spirit was speaking. The wash of white across the entire arena at the climax of the song felt like forgiveness being poured out over everyone, and the simple spotlight blended with Bono’s whisper to “let it go” – take the division between you and spirit and let it go. As a result, it felt right to have “One” come after “Bad” in the set list for unity.

The intermission is a short video explaining the punk movement by those who were a part of it. Particularly ironic was the use of the quote, “No one even bothered to listen to the record,” which links back to the September 2014 release of Songs Of Innocence. Act two sees the band performing inside the screen in an area production calls the “rabbit hole,” a reference to Alice In Wonderland, for “Invisible.” This is the point in the show where the band breaks through the divider with the next song, “Even Better Than The Real Thing,” and the screen is no longer used as a divider, rather uniting everyone and everything.

The key production piece in act two is “Bullet The Blue Sky.” Bono’s channeling his inner hypocrite, changing the lyrics from “fighter planes” to “private planes,” shifting the focus from military interest to the Occupy Wall Street movement. “You’ve got more than you need” is part of Bono’s rap. It’s a conversation he’s having with his 19-year-old self who would see him now and condemn him, and his 55-year-old self is explaining the purpose behind it all. He’s trying to reconcile that he’s become the thing he protested all those decades ago. The reinvention of this song is outstanding.

The level of detail woven into the show is remarkable. From the Irish flag lighting of the band members in “Sunday Bloody Sunday," where Bono and Larry are flooded in green (perhaps symbolizing their Catholic upbringing), and Edge and Adam are flooded in orange (symbolizing Protestant upbringing), to Bono wearing blue-tinted glasses in act one and changing to rose-tinted glasses in act two, perhaps symbolizing that he’s looking at his experience through a rose tint. The numbers 7 and 4 are on Edge’s shirt for 1974, a tie-in to the Dublin bombings. The paper debris pieces that fall as Bono enters into the rabbit hole at the end of “Until The End Of The World” are torn pages from Dante’s Inferno, Alice In Wonderland and the book of Psalms taken from The Message Bible translation. This specific translation is a nod to Eugene Petersen, whom Bono is particularly fond of. Video footage from the Higgs Boson Collider appeared to be used for “City Of Blinding Lights,” a song with overtones about heaven, with visuals of a collider trying to find the God particle.

From a logistical perspective, each seating area has its benefits and challenges. I found that GA was a mixed bag: You are close to the band, but you miss the production for the most part. The seats at the far ends of the stage lined up with the center screen were obstructed view as you couldn’t see the screen. A smaller production screen was on either end, but that fed the production camera treatment and not the animation, nor could you see the band during the production pieces when they were in the screen. Most notably, the audio was clear but too loud, so bring ear plugs with you.

There is so much more to this show, and a single column won’t do it justice. I am so energized by the Innocence + Experience tour, especially how it will mature over the course of these months. As Gavin Friday said to Hot Press' Olaf Tyaransen, "It usually takes six shows before the Baby is Achtung!" Prior to opening night, many U2 associates told us, “We hope you’ll love it as much as we do.” After the May 15 show, I can concretely state that I absolutely do.

It was great to see the level of fan interaction at the two Vancouver concerts, but it was even better that fans have become a part of the show. On opening night, Reilly H. was pulled up to video the band using a cell phone (apparently it was available on social media using meerkat) during “Sweetest Thing.”

Later on, Bono brought up a young man wearing an African Well Fund T-shirt. He had bumped into him on the U2 360 tour. Four years older and a bit taller, the young man was brought up on stage for “Beautiful Day.” This young man is Nathanial Crossley, and while the majority of people at Rogers Arena didn’t know who he was, the team here at @U2 sure did. Crossley has a passion for Africa and was one of the biggest encouragers for Bono when he had his back surgery in 2010, starting a “Bono I Got Your Back” Facebook page when he was 8 years old. In 2012 at age 10, Crossley raised over $8,000 for the African Well Fund. A year later, he visited Tanzania with the Africa Wash Project and partnered with local schools to bring sports equipment to Africa. He’s worked on a documentary called The Kilimanjaro Project and continues his humanitarian work at the age of 13. He is an amazing inspiration with a heart of compassion.

Crossley’s age reminded me of Beth Nabi’s experience when she met Bono in Miami last fall and Bono wrote in her Achtung Baby liner notes, “Thirteen is the beginning and the end. Stay 13. In so many ways.”

It’s times like these that underscore what Bono said, “Whatever’s going on, it’s a phenomenon equal to what’s going on the stage is what’s going on in the crowd, the U2 crowd. Very special people.” U2 continues to transcend the concert stages and the music listening device. U2 continues to be a call to action, and the band’s fan base continues to heed that call. So many people signed up for the ONE Campaign and signed petitions for Amnesty International these past few days. Fan-driven organizations like the African Well Fund continue the critical work in Africa and other nations.

We hope you’ve been enjoying our tour coverage thus far. Plans are afoot to do tour-related columns for Like A Song and Like A Video, as well as more pictures and video along the tour across our social media accounts. We have a bunch of videos up on YouTube, and more will be shared along the way. Special thanks to everyone who came out to Doolin’s Irish Pub for our party last week, to all who joined us on Periscope, and to everyone who took the time to talk with us during our stay in Vancouver.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special thank you to members of the U2 production crew who were kind enough to say hello as well. We are in awe of what you’re doing. Safe travels with all the journeys ahead.

And finally … the new intro song for the tour is a mix of The Ramones’ “Beat On The Brat” blended with “Discotheque” and “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” Sounds great!

‘Til next time…

Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.

©@U2/Lawrence, 2015.