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His last performances showcase a voice even bigger than his gut, where you cry real tears as the music messiah sings his tired heart out, turning casino into temple. -- Bono, in a tribute to Elvis Presley, 2004

Like A Video: Sunday Bloody Sunday (Electric Lady version)


Like a Video[Ed. note: This is the 17th in a series of essays by the @U2 staff about U2-related visuals and videos. Some essays may be informational and educational, while others may be more personal.]

Last week my wife texted me from work: "I need a U2 concert." Isn't that the truth?! Her brief message encapsulates the feelings of anticipation, frustration and expectation that many of us have these days. While we wait and hope for a new album by the end of 2014 and a tour in 2015, ONE's recent campaign called Agit8 offers the next best thing. As if in answer to my wife's request, Agit8 brings us a live U2 performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" at just the right time.

Agit8, a run-up campaign to the G8 Summit, uses historic protest songs to heighten the issue of extreme global poverty. In an inaugural announcement by ONE, Bono refers to Nelson Mandela as a "great agitator." He goes on to quote Mandela, "Millions of people... are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free. Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation."

"Sunday Bloody Sunday" has had a long and creative history as a protest song, often as a significant force in U2's live presentation. It first appeared on War in 1983 as a critique of The Troubles and the infamous Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland. The song retained its impact as a commentary on Ireland throughout the early years of U2, showing up in concert on Under A Blood Red Sky and Rattle And Hum. The band used the song to again reference sectarian violence in Ireland in U2 Go Home: Live From Slane Castle, as they memorialized 29 people who died in a bombing shortly before the concert's recording.

In 2005, during the Vertigo tour, U2 reframed the song by connecting it directly to the conflict in the Middle East. It was strategically placed between "Love And Peace Or Else," a commentary on Jewish/Muslim/Christian tensions, and "Bullet The Blue Sky," another tune that has been reinterpreted in concert many times. During the 360 tour, the band used "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to highlight unjust conditions in Iran, and through a stunning musical and visual presentation, offered their full support to Iran's Green Movement, an illicit campaign of nonviolent protest against the reigning political regime. (For a full commentary on how U2 used this song on the 360 tour, see my first LAV essay.

With that brief history in mind, we can now consider the live performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" that was posted by Agit8 on June 13. It really is a remarkable expression of this old standard. Recorded on the roof of Electric Lady Studios in New York City on May 31, this presentation is a slow-tempo acoustic version reminiscent of Edge's solo of the song during the PopMart tour. It's notable for a number of reasons: Bono changes and adapts the final verse to Iran's current context, Edge provides graceful background vocals while gently strumming on a capoed acoustic guitar, Adam lounges at an electric piano and Larry keeps the troops marching in step with brushes and a single snare. All in all, it is a brilliant understatement and a powerful performance.

Characteristic of a U2 performance, this video doesn't stop with thoughtful lyrics and moving melodies, but also provides a context for the tune by including an introduction and supporting visuals. Bono comments that this song is most significant in times and places of conflict, and also offers "greetings from New York City to the good people of Iran." As the band is setting up, a crew of young campaigners hangs pictures of Iranian protesters on walls in the background, becoming an effective and convincing backdrop for a message of peace.

The additional lyrics of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" work together with the acoustic treatments and visual ornaments to create a completely new sense of the song. In this version we don't hear an impassioned plea to wipe the tears away. This rendition has no place for a cadence of "no more" or a rap of anger and defiance. Here, we simply have a broken heart calling out for reflection on injustice. This is a prayer. In a final verse, Bono reminds us that these conflicts are not just political. They are social. They are economic. They are spiritual.

"On another broken hill
Red crosses and crescent moon collides
Pilgrims pray to know God's will
Scratching in the dirt
Signing up to die
Scorched earth or a cruel sun
Is this the battle Jesus won on Sunday Bloody Sunday?"

Dry, stripped down and recorded with just the essential equipment, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" continues to be a message about a battle. At times, the song functions as a passionate cry to move out in full combat gear. But other times, such as this one, it calls for lament and reflection, recognizing that the battle is hard, weary and ancient. The "broken hill" might be a sectarian war in Ireland, an injustice in Iran or knoll with three crosses on it. For some it will be a fractured heart.

Do you need a U2 concert? While a tour is still many months away, make sure you check out U2's recent performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday." It's a rich study in reinterpretation, contrast and understatement. Just what I needed.

@U2 news writer Ian Ryan has some additional thoughts about U2's recent performance and the band's ongoing connection to the Middle East in his recent OTR column.

(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2013.