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In U2's Grasp

Irish Rock band tours the world using revolutionary stage

De Standaard, June 27, 2009
By: Peter Vantyghem

 

[@U2 note: This is a translation, the original article is in Dutch and can be found here: http://www.standaard.be/Artikel/Detail.aspx?artikelId=R72BP82Q]

Next Tuesday, U2 will kick off its 360 Tour in Barcelona. The stage design has been kept strictly secret so far, but we received a foretaste. And believe us -- once again, it shifts boundaries and, moreover, includes an important Flemish contribution.

Chuck Hoberman happily admits he has arrived in another world. This is not the California Museum of Science and Industry, where his "expanding hypar" is located, nor is it the dome of the world expo in Hannover which he designed. This is U2.

What do the world's biggest rock band and this thin, grey-haired man have to do with each other? "I can listen to U2's music," he says carefully. "But in reality, I'm not really a music person. I'm a more visually oriented person."

Few people know his name, but everyone knows one of his creations. Chuck Hoberman is the inventor of the "Hoberman Sphere," a spherical structure measuring 15 to 30 cm in diameter which can be expanded and collapsed. It is a wonderful kinetic work of art of which the toy version sold millions of copies.

Hoberman is a guest at the Antwerp Sportpaleis as one of the four members of the "dream team" designing the new U2 show that premiers in Barcelona on Tuesday. Hoberman is the only member of the team who has never worked with the group before. "This project places my work in a totally different context," he says. "It is more spectacular than anything I've done before."

We're having a look at the piece of artistry that wouldn't have existed without his inventions. Slowly the ellipse-shaped video screen expands, from 6 meters when folded to 22 meters when fully extended. A 22-meter-deep video screen with a diameter of 24 meters, that will be traveling the world with U2 and taking the next step in the history of live entertainment.

The "chips bag" is what they call the screen. It hangs from the top of a "coffee table" and will have a "cigar" in the middle. But those are names the dream team uses and which will perhaps never be used publicly. The ambition is, after all, to not put the innovating show itself but its patrons, U2, in the spotlight.

Video

No band has changed the sight of live entertainment as much as the Irish super group U2. When the band played the Torhout-Werchter festival in 1982 and singer Bono stole the show by climbing onto the stage scaffolding, nothing indicated that a groundbreaking top band would grow out of this little group.

One of the men behind the scenes at the time was Willie Williams. He was 22 years old and a great fan of punk music. His favorite band, Stiff Little Fingers, had just called it quits, but Williams had stumbled upon U2, who accepted his services as a light engineer.

What did he see in them? "There was energy in that band, they were attracting me. U2 had a fresh sound, but didn't think about the longer term." Williams took control of the concert direction and has left his mark on every U2 tour since. "I am the director. I need to guide the band and show them new paths to take. I've been doing that for 27 years. Creatively, we grew up together. Every time we took a new step together, it was a first for all of us."

The Briton directed eight world tours for U2 and worked with R.E.M. and The Rolling Stones, among others. He is the brains behind the Zoo TV and PopMart tours, which pushed the look of concerts in a new direction. After Zoo TV, no one worked without video anymore.

In 2005, Williams began thinking of a new revolution. The Vertigo tour went well, but didn't really offer anything new. He noticed how other bands, like Nine Inch Nails, were experimenting with new stage designs. "I started thinking about what could follow the use of video. The problem is that you can't just detach your mind from that which you know already. What if we were to try to bring the audience together more, I thought. In a venue it works if you place the stage in the middle. But if you do that outside, you won't have a roof to hang the sound and lighting equipment on. That made it difficult to find an aesthetically good concept."

Two influences helped him. He is fascinated by the ambiance of soccer matches, where the audience is sitting around the action. And at the opera festival of Bregenz he'd seen a fixed stage structure in the lake, which everyone was watching in awe before the show started, but which was totally forgotten during the spectacle itself. That was what he wanted.

Williams found the solution when he was touring in New Zealand with U2. "We had to let go of our traditional view on what a stage is and construct something in the middle of the stadium which is so big, that it would, as it were, be part of the stadium itself. A sort of four-legged table, like the bottom half of the Eiffel Tower, taking up the whole playing field of the stadium and which has everything hanging from it."

Revolutionary

When U2 embark on a world tour, many people get a call years beforehand. Hedwig De Meyer, owner of the stage building company Stageco, traveled to New Zealand immediately and understood the mission. But architect Mark Fisher had to get in action especially. He drew the sketches for the "coffee table" in 2006 and got the green light immediately.

Fisher is a phlegmatic Briton who finished college as an architect in 1971, but said goodbye to that field. He made history by designing Pink Floyd's 1977 Animals Tour in a time when stage design didn't exist yet. For 30 years he has been a figurehead in that world, working on productions like The Wall (Pink Floyd), mega shows of Jean-Michel Jarre and Tina Turner, three Stones tours and shows for Cirque du Soleil.

"What it shouldn't look like was a classic rock show, with the stage at the front," he said, explaining the challenge. "And we wanted to be revolutionary again. That is normal: I did PopMart and after that they wanted something different. Back to the essence, you know. That is a typical game of action and reaction. That's how Elevation and Vertigo followed. But regarding the size, it's like Zoo TV and PopMart again this time."

The challenge also involved overcoming practical difficulties. "Everything needs to be able to be built up and stripped down fast to enable transportation. The coffee table weighs 180 tonnes. To transport the raw, steel structure, 40 trucks are needed. And then you need to think of everything that hangs from it: sound, light, screens, sheets. A single concert could easily need 80 trucks."

There was another challenge waiting for Fisher. Once the coffee table was installed, with a stage below it, how would the people be able to see U2? Video screens were necessary, but the size of the coffee table proved a big problem: every screen would block the sight of the audience at the other side.

Fisher: "At first we considered working without screens. But you know, this kind of project isn't done by just one person. At the time, I worked with Chuck Hoberman, whose adjustable structures looked interesting for use in architecture. Willie knew Chuck's work and Chuck worked with Frederic, with whom I worked on previous U2 productions."

Somewhere around Kortrijk, another phone rung. Frederic Opsomer of the Flemish company Barco was asked to design a completely new video screen.

Transparent

Frederic Opsomer carefully weighs his words. He can appreciate U2, but is not a big fan of their music, he says. His contact with the group dates back to 1996, when his company System Technologies was asked to make a video screen more than 700 square meters in size. Opsomer had started his career several years before at a rental firm for video screens and projectors, but had bigger ambitions. He specialized in transportable video screens for outdoor entertainment.

The screen concerned was assembled from panels of 256 pixels each (LED-tiles) and was the center of attention all over the world for a year. After that, the company attracted new clients like Janet Jackson, Celine Dion, Eurythmics, Aerosmith, but also top companies like Sony and Panasonic. In 2005, Barco bought the company.

Opsomer sketches the evolution of video: "Video screens used to be 3x4 meters, flat and static. Variety was sought by making the screens move, then by dividing them into pieces (Genesis in the early nineties). Janet Jackson had a screen that opened like a book. But now we'll take it much further."

The briefing was clear: U2 wanted a video screen that was integrated into the coffee table and was transparent at the same time. Opsomer: "The specific problem is that the coffee table has a structure of 360 degrees. And yet the audience must be able to look through it and see the other stands. In theory you could hang up four flat screens, but that won't work. Aesthetically, the structure should not be an obstacle to the concert experience."

Coincidence lent a helping hand. "At that moment I had been in touch with Chuck Hoberman. At Barco, we wanted to make a video screen that's transformable, and that's what Chuck was working on with his expandable structures. We worked on several different suggestions for U2 and one of them was kept."

Opsomer shows the screen from up close. Imagine an enormous grid with thousands of pixel points mounted on top of it, each containing three lamps of basic colors. Through a computer, each part can get any color variety, and all particles can be rearranged into any shape desired. "You can make organic and three-dimensional structures with it; screens, coils... This technique will go through different stages and will certainly be drawing attention for the next five years," Opsomer predicts.

U2's 360 Tour starts on 30th June in Barcelona (Camp Nou). At the moment, tickets are still available for shows, including Barcelona (2/7), Berlin (18/7), Amsterdam (20 & 21/7) and Gelsenkirchen (3/8). So far, a Belgian date has not been set.



© De Standaard, 2009.



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