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"We chose the name U2 to be ambiguous, to stay away from categorization." — Bono

Teaching U2: The Concert Dilemma


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When designing my college course, Songs of Ascent: The Music and Meaning of U2, I could have never imagined that my biggest source of frustration, even after teaching the class three times, would be determining which live performances should be showcased. Some choices are obvious: show clips from a concert that coincides with an album (Under A Blood Red Sky: Live At Red Rocks when discussing War), their entire performance at Live Aid in 1985, and their Super Bowl halftime show in 2002. However, other times the decision is not so easy. When discussing All That You Can’t Leave Behind do I select Elevation 2001: Live From Boston or U2 Go Home: Live From Slane Castle? When covering How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb should I show Vertigo 2005: Live From Chicago or Live In Milan?

The next, more difficult decision, is choosing which songs to play during the class. I typically choose only four to five songs so there can be time after for discussion. I always begin with the concert opener and second song (and sometimes the third) because I want students to sense the crowd’s enthusiasm before U2’s arrival onstage, and the different creative ways the band starts a show. For example, moving from “Zoo Station” to “The Fly” on ZooTV: Live From Sydney, or “City of Blinding Lights” to “Elevation” on Vertigo 2005: Live From Chicago is a great one-two punch, and really draws students into the concert. However, after that I scan the setlist on the DVD packaging and the second-guessing of what to play next begins.

After the opening few songs, I try to mix things up and not rely too much on standards like “With Or Without You” or “One.” For example, during U2360º: At The Rose Bowl I show “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” as an example of a remix that, at least for me, is better than the album version. I also try to touch upon those moments that convey U2’s political commentary and activism such as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from Vertigo 2005: Live From Chicago, or “Walk On” from U2360º: At The Rose Bowl. Perhaps my favorite musical arc is during Innocence And Experience: Live In Paris. As the band moves through “October, “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “Zooropa,” there are powerful images of war-torn Syria and the European refugee crisis in 2015, but during “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “Pride,” the sequence reaches its emotional apex as Bono makes an appeal for peace and love.

I would argue “Bullet The Blue Sky” is the centerpiece of this sequence. To prepare students for analyzing this performance, I ask them to read “'Bullet the Blue Sky' as an Evolving Performance” by Steve Taylor from Scott Calhoun’s Exploring U2: Is This Rock ‘N’ Roll: Essays On The Music, Work, And Influence Of U2 (2012). Taylor examines the different meanings of “Bullet The Blue Sky” over the years, from The Joshua Tree album (U.S. involvement in Central America in the 1980s) and how the song is adapted for new audiences and issues, such as during its Slane Castle performance in U2 Go Home (global arms trade in the 2000s). Students also watch the various concert performances of “Bullet” on their own before the Paris concert to see how the song has evolved over time.  

While there are some concert clips I’ve shown each year, I do experiment to make things interesting, always trying to find that “perfect mix.” However, PopMart: Live From Mexico City is one concert where I seem to be never satisfied with my song selections. For example, I’ve shown “Please” one semester, but traded it out for “Discotheque” the next. Another semester I played “Staring At The Sun,” but the next replaced it with “Lemon (Perfecto Mix).” No doubt I’ll change things up again next fall depending on my mood for not only PopMart, but other shows as well.

U2 Concert Critique

In my class students are required to write a paper analyzing a U2 concert using one of two different frameworks: leitourgia or bricolage. Leitourgia is discussed by Beth Maynard in her article “Where Leitourgia Has No Name: U2 Live,” while Matthew Hamilton writes about bricolage in “The Transformative Fan: The Bricolage Of U2 Live.” Both articles can be found in two excellent volumes edited by @U2 staffer Scott Calhoun: Exploring U2 (2011) cited earlier, and U2 Above, Across, And Beyond: Interdisciplinary Assessments (2015).

According to Maynard, leitourgia comes from the Greek meaning “work taken on as a public service by private citizens,” and is a way to explore how U2 engage with their audience. Maynard applies different categories of leitourgia to U2 live including: unifying the spiritual and material (expressions of faith), unifying the crowd (sing-alongs, coordinated gestures), generating feelings of “ultimate fulfillment” (justice, joy), and calling the audience to participate in change (promoting social justice issues, supporting ONE).

Bricolage, Hamilton explains, a term used in art, music and literature, is the process of creating new art influenced by its older forms. According to Hamilton, U2 embrace bricolage by striving to remain relevant through changing their sound on each album, and also creating performance art during their concerts. For example, during the 360 tour Bono asks the audience to turn on their cellphone flashlights before “Moment of Surrender,” inviting them to become an essential part of the performance. In this way U2 use bricolage each night to create a new and memorable concert experience for both the band and audience.

I’m sure U2 fans who have seen the band live can think of numerous examples to fit both categories, but for my students, the majority of whom have never seen a U2 concert, it is more challenging. Interestingly, of the two frameworks most students select leitourgia. I expect this is because Maynard provides specific categories from which students can find examples from their chosen concert that fit within each. Bricolage is a more abstract concept for students, but has been embraced more by those who, not surprisingly, want to be art, music or theatre majors.

The concert critique is, perhaps, the most difficult paper for students to write. Not only must they watch an entire U2 concert and take detailed notes about song selection, imagery and Bono’s actions and commentary, but they must also first understand leitourgia or bricolage so they can find examples of it during the show. We actually spend an entire class period discussing Maynard and Hamilton, and as a supplement, I give students a handout outlining both leitourgia and bricolage. Regardless of the chosen method, my hope is that by doing a concert critique students will better appreciate the different ways U2 have been able to connect with audiences over the decades.

I’ll be teaching U2 one last time next fall and would appreciate any suggestions readers might have of concert clips I should show, or what I might be missing. I’m guessing some of you will suggest such performances as the US Festival in 1983, “Walk On” for the 9/11 tribute, and “Bullet The Blue Sky” at the 2016 Dreamforce Dreamfest benefit concert. I’ve shown each of these in class, and they’re exactly what I’m looking for. So, if you have any ideas please let me know.

(c) @U2/Whitt, 2018