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"I would call myself an aggressive pacifist." — Bono

Column: off the record ... vol. 17-764



The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 has touched a nerve with some concertgoers, and it’s one I anticipated the tour would irritate. Thirty years ago, the band faced opposition from people in America over political messaging during their concerts. As citizens of Ireland, what right did they have coming into the United States and lecturing us about our country? This common complaint about U2 and the band’s then 26-year-old-singer made many take notice because that “lecture” wasn’t what people expected at a rock show. Who went to a concert, designed for entertainment, only to have a buzzkill about our president’s policies or the IRA bombings and the like? Protest music was starting to fade in the late '80s, and activist-style tracks had run their course. People in the U.S. were beginning to discover U2 because of the band’s latest album thanks to MTV, Rolling Stone, radio airplay and word of mouth. Imagine a 1987 U2 if the Internet had been around? The generation that grew up with U2 in the '80s and stuck with the band grew up understanding that U2 was not merely a band designed to entertain the masses for a “good time.” From the band’s very start, the message they have brought from the stage is one of human rights. When human rights are being violated, they bring transparency to the issue — no matter the country, leader or organization.

If you are reading this column, you are probably among those who already know that. However, you may encounter people who react just like those a generation ago who don’t realize that U2’s core message has not changed over 40 years. I’ve been on a mission while covering the live shows on the @U2 Twitter account and on my own Twitter account to remind folks on U2’s history because I’m seeing tweets from the show that say things like, “Shut up and sing, Bono.” These folks probably didn’t grow up knowing U2, and started following the band later in their career and don’t realize what U2’s about. They probably don’t remember the way Bono went after a sitting U.S. president in 1992 (George H.W. Bush) from the stage with calls to the White House and the ZooTV Outside Broadcast opening video condemning the U.S. “rocking” Baghdad. These folks may not know that the U.S. isn’t the only country U2 have “lectured” during their concerts, especially during the European leg of ZooTV with MacPhisto’s phone calls.

Tour after tour, that human rights messaging continued. When PopMart visited Chile in 1998, the band brought the actual mothers of the disappeared on stage, holding photos of their dead sons. For the Elevation tour, U2’s message to the American audience during “Bullet The Blue Sky” was aimed at the National Rifle Association and how powerful the gun lobby had become. The Vertigo tour’s coexist message focused on all religions living together as one and featured the Declaration of Human Rights in the production. The U2 360 tour’s focus on the Arab Spring movement, how we are all on this planet together, and freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners of conscience, brought everything full-circle (so to speak).

In 2017, dozens of books on the topic of U2’s message and thousands of videos on YouTube are available. Information is not hard to come by about U2. As “The Fly” said, “It’s no secret at all.” So why are so many people coming to see The Joshua Tree 2017 tour who feel surprised by the band’s message from the stage? Why are fans like me being labeled “snowflakes” because we’re pointing out that the current U.S. president isn’t the only one Bono’s ever singled out during the show? Fake news, right? Have we taken for granted that we think if you’re going to a U2 show, you know a little bit about the band? Honestly, it would be like me going to a Madonna show and saying, “She should stop with all this sex stuff and just sing ‘Like A Virgin’ already.” C’mon — if you don’t know who the artist is after decades in the industry, then maybe you shouldn’t be at their concert … or at least be more open-minded.

In reality, The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 is one of the tamest tours U2 have done in regard to messaging. The gentleness of the message for this tour has hard-core fans like me stunned, to be honest. We’re used to a fired-up Bono, which is why “Exit” is so satisfying because we need an outlet to vent that rage at the world. Instead, U2 are bringing an “open-arms, let me hug you and tell you it’s not all bad” message. During the band’s visit to Philadelphia last week, Bono let some of that pent-up anger out during the intro to “One,” explaining to the audience that all the hard work done over the past 12 years by the One Campaign is about to be undone with the loss of U.S government funding. It was the first time on the tour that Bono spoke the name of the U.S. president from the stage. Several members of Congress were at the next tour stop only 10 miles outside of Washington, D.C., in Landover, Maryland (Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Kay Grainger), as well as lobbyists from the political spectrum.

For this show, the band did something for the first time — use President Ronald Reagan in a positive way. The intro to “Beautiful Day” included a mashup of Presidents Reagan and John F. Kennedy using Kennedy’s “City Upon A Hill” speech to drive home the point of inclusiveness and openness, as well as the fact that the eyes of the world are watching. You can’t get more conservative Republican than Reagan, or more liberal Democrat that Kennedy, so using them both to prove that there can be common ground is quite a statement. The original "City Upon A Hill" dates back to 1630 in remarks by John Winthrop, future governor of Massachusetts, charting the purpose for those sailing on the Arbella to colonize the area that would become Massachusetts. The origins come from people looking to immigrate to a new country.

I never thought I’d see U2 include Ronald Reagan — the very “face red like a rose on a thorn bush” the band has protested against for decades — as a force for good. That was such a profound moment for this band, and perhaps a moment of humility. If U2 can accept there was something good about their 1980s “enemy,” then there is indeed room for compromise. It’s a maturity that only comes from experience. That same intro was used in Foxborough, so it might be a part of the tour through the end of the American leg.

As the tour wraps up its first leg in Cleveland next Saturday, I am anticipating a shift as it enters Europe. We saw a slight shift already with the tour stop in Toronto, where a pro-Canada message emanated from the stage, as well as a profound love for Leonard Cohen. Sure, some grumbled about the video for “Trip Through Your Wires” showing someone painting the U.S. flag, but to be fair, this leg was designed for an American audience. I would anticipate some changes for Europe given America’s current standing internationally.

As usual, it takes about 30 days for a U2 tour to hit its stride, and this tour is no exception. The jitters of Vancouver are gone. I saw a more confident band in Foxborough, secure in knowing the show has been well-received, and now a bit more playful from the stage. Bono’s anecdotes about the songs and the region feel more like a guy at a bar telling you a story instead of a preacher lecturing you from a soapbox. Foxborough’s show had an ebb and flow that wasn’t quite there at the start of the tour. This is why I enjoy going to opening night, then waiting about a month before seeing the concert again. It’s the difference between liking something and loving something. I liked the band’s Vancouver performance, but I loved their Foxborough show.

What I didn’t love was the actual venue. Logistically, Gillette Stadium has to be one of the most inconvenient venues in the Northeast. As in 2009, it took hours to get out of the parking lot. Each lot feeds into the other; multiple lanes feed into one lane; and those lanes only egress through a small handful of paths. U2 were back in New York City before many were out of the parking lot on Sunday. The parking lot ends up like that because no viable public transportation option to the venue is available. The venue is next to Route 1, a divided highway with cement barriers separating the traffic. When the show ends, the lanes become one way. The midpoint of the stadium determines whether you can take a left or right turn out of the lot. You may be forced onto I-95N when you really needed to go I-495S.

We avoided general admission for the show because we brought Li’l Miss (our daughter) with us, and I’m glad we did. Venue security did not initially honor the fan-created GA line. Gillette Stadium’s communication to ticket holders made it clear they would not allow anyone to arrive at the venue before 2:30 p.m., when the parking lots opened. The stadium staff were strict with fans running the fan queue about not being on property. On the day of the show, the venue allowed people who arrived at 2:30 to “begin” the general admission line — bypassing the fan queue that had started two days earlier. This lack of collaboration did not go over well. Tour director Craig Evans spoke with venue staff, who didn't honor the original fan queue. The experience created a situation that wouldn’t have happened if the venue had been willing to collaborate.

The venue, unfortunately, can’t collaborate in this way. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, public venues such as Gillette Stadium enacted tougher security protocols. With recent world events, those protocols became even tighter. I spoke with venue security around the stadium, who all provided a consistent message: They do not allow groups of people to congregate around the entrances to the venue. When the parking lots open, they have security in place to accept groups of people arriving. If they feel you have no business being at the venue, they will not allow you to hang out. For fans waiting at the backstage entrance for the band’s arrival, security would not allow anyone to just stand idle — they had to keep walking and moving. Security is not going to take direction or orders from the average fan.

Given the situation in Foxborough, some people mentioned that Bruce Springsteen has a dedicated crew member who organizes the GA line with the venue, and suggested that U2 have a similar person. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

Some random things I learned at the show in Foxborough from members of the production crew:

  • Foxborough was Joe O’Herlihy’s 2,001st U2 show behind the sound desk.
  • Four delay towers ensure no sound delay in the stadium. Typically there would only be two.
  • The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 uses about 8 miles of cable.
  • The Underworld is so tight that only Dallas and Stuart use it. In Vancouver, foam pool noodles were placed around poles in the Underworld to protect the crew from hurting themselves. Sam usually hangs out on the back stairs behind Larry.
  • The band’s backstage personal dressing rooms are named after The Dalton Brothers.
  • Approximately 1.5 million screws hold the roughly 1,040 individual panels that make up the tour’s 200 x 45 ft screen.
  • The carbon fiber screen can withstand winds up to 44 miles per hour.
  • There are approximately 11.4 million LEDs in the carbon fiber screen.
  • Custom-designed structural beams were built to facilitate the suspension of the PA and lighting above the video screen, thereby removing the PA rig from the usual position in front of and side of stage.
  • The tour’s production equipment will fit on three chartered airplanes with no passengers when the tour travels from Cleveland to London.

And finally … before the band took the stage in Foxborough, Bono spent some time with VIP guests to celebrate RED. Charlie Rose facilitated the conversation. The guests included former Secretary of State John Kerry and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

‘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, 2017