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"I grew up with Frank Sinatra and it has taken me a long time to get to a place where I really enjoy [U2's] music." — Ali Hewson

Column: Off the Record..., Vol. 19-781


U2 Skylines (AmyOTR)

Image credit: Brad Rose for @U2

This week, U2 embarks on their first tour of Australia and New Zealand since they took the 360 Tour there in 2009.  And though I saw them 16 times in the U.S. on two legs of The Joshua Tree 2017 tour, I am making the trek from the American Midwest for 8 of these upcoming shows.

If you’re reading this, you may have done something that I find myself doing all the time —trying to explain to my friends and family this singular devotion I have to a band.  Every time I announce that I’m leaving to travel to another U2 show, I get a similar response from one or more of my family members: “When are they going to retire?” And I respond with “Bite your tongue.”

In Liner Notes, a film about Songs of Experience by Matt Mahurin about, Bono said “We give birth to these songs, but it’s our audiences who give life and meaning to them.  The relationship with the performers and the audience in U2 is a crazy romance.  There’s a deal in place:  we don’t have to worry about where our kids go to school or how to afford the family holiday, but in turn, our audience don’t have to worry that the band is not going to give everything we’ve got.”

I’ve slept in airports, sat outside in blistering heat, stood for hours, and spent so much money on tickets and travel that I probably could’ve purchased a house by now.  But the question is why.  What is it about U2, specifically what is it about seeing them live, that has lead me to do these things and love every minute of the time I spent doing them?

In my case, it’s appropriate to start at the beginning.  I grew up knowing who U2 were, knew their music, but didn’t consider myself a fan. Then, in November 2001, they added a third leg to the Elevation Tour, which included a show in Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City was a short three-hour drive from Springfield, Missouri, where I was a junior in college.  I was desperate for a distraction and a little adventure, so I bought tickets and made the trip with my younger brother and a buddy.  The timing of this trip was everything.  It was merely 10 weeks after the horror of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. It was a scary time for everyone. In the middle of October, a mere six weeks before this concert, I had taken a trip to Indiana to visit a high school crush.  It was a trip that was overshadowed by the post-9/11 fear we all felt but also one that went so badly that it ended my friendship with this man that I cared deeply for.  I was heartbroken.  I was sad, scared, lonely, and just going through the motions at school. But everyone was sad and scared.  Fear and sadness were feelings that hung in the air in those weeks after 9/11, no matter where you went or what you did.

But then came that night, Nov. 27, 2001, at Kemper Arena in Kansas City.  I remember when Bono came out and the band played “Elevation” and “Beautiful Day.” The arena was filled with joy, a feeling that you could tell so many people wanted so badly to feel but maybe had been afraid to in the weeks prior.  I remember specifically that Bono laid down on the stage for a moment, and I thought, “Anything this guy does is cool.”  The night continued as the crowd sang along to new hits like “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” and old favorites like “Pride.”  I felt the catharsis that I had so desperately needed. I felt inspired and filled with joy and hope and fun.  And I was hooked.  

I went back to school after the long drive home that night and played All That You Can’t Leave Behindover and over again in my CD player for the rest of year, feeling comforted every time I hit PLAY.

My brother attended that concert with me and it remains the only time he’s seen U2 live.  I have seen them 51 times since, in 20 states, and four countries.  And again, the question remains:  why?  And the simple answer is that I connected with them that night, and I have every time I’ve seen them live since.

On the three most recent tours, I saw them 14 times, 16 times, and 22 times, respectively.  And again, I am often asked “Isn’t it the same show every night? Why do you spend money to see the same show two nights in a row?”  In truth, I saw them two nights in a row in Denver, Chicago, Belfast, Dublin, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., and London.  At many of those shows on back-to-back nights, I’ve had to awkwardly explain to the other patrons sitting or standing next to me that yes, I had plans to see the show the following night, or that, as a matter of fact, I had seen the show the night before. To say that I’ve gotten my share of strange glances or polite smiles would be an understatement.  

It would stand to reason that the second show in the same city is the same as the first one, but I’ve never found it to be true. The first night is always a rollicking welcome, filled with excitement as the band reintroduces itself to the city, even if they were just there a year earlier.  They play like they’ve never played in that city and that every attendee is seeing them for the first time and they want to make a good impression. The second night always has a few changes, but more of the same energy (albeit sometimes many of Bono’s same “go-to” lines).  But usually there’s at least one or two surprise songs.

Though I have seen back-to-back shows in several cities, the consecutive night shows that may be the most memorable ones for me were the two U2 played in Belfast in November 2015 on the Innocence and Experience Tour.  It was the first time they had played the city since the PopMart tour in 1997. Perhaps even more significantly, these two shows came right after they had had to postpone two dates in Paris after the attacks of  November 13, 2015.  Like many others, I had been in Paris with plans to be at those shows, but instead I spent that weekend holed up in my hotel, quite shaken and waiting for my flight to Belfast.  I had no idea what to expect at the Belfast performances.  The first night, we were treated to unexpected, joyous renditions of “Elevation” and “The Sweetest Thing.”  Like at the show I saw right after 9/11, the audience felt like it was letting out its collective breath.  It was as if the band was giving us permission to feel joy and be happy after the trauma of the previous week.  The second night was also full of some great surprises, when they invited fans to come on stage and play guitar and sing “Angel of Harlem” with them.  They also ended the evening with a powerful version of “40.” I can’t say that I remember a lot of the details of all of the shows I’ve seen, or what the views have been from every single show, but I remember them from those two nights in Belfast in 2015.

It might sound odd, but there are two places that I feel closest to God.  The first is in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and the second is at a U2 concert. The first is a quiet place where I hear God in the reverent silence.  The second is a place where I feel joy and exaltation and that of everyone around me, which allows me to communicate with God and feel grateful.

At the end of shows on the more recent tours, Bono ends with “Thanks for giving us a great life,” to which I would like to respond:  “No, thanks for giving US a great life.” 

(c) @U2/Pflughaupt, 2019

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