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Top Ten Unofficial Live U2 Recordings

[Ed. note: This is the second in a series of "Top Ten" articles, and is written as a special contribution to @U2 by Aaron Sams, webmaster of U2wanderer.org. Also, these are not official releases and are not sanctioned by the band. We cannot help you locate copies of any of these shows, however there are many mailing lists where U2 fans happily trade shows with other fans. Please use Yahoo Groups to locate such lists.]

Different people have different tastes when it comes to live U2 recordings. Some like the clean pristine sound of a soundboard show, and others like to relive being in the crowd with people talking all around you. Chances are if the person has seen a U2 concert and has a recording of it, it'll appear on the list; one of the reasons many people get into collecting live recordings is to have the experience of revisiting shows they attended. If you get really lucky you get an incredible recording to remember the show you attended.

I'm going to list my own personal top ten recommendations for live recordings of U2 shows. Some recordings are favorites for sentimental reasons (I was there), others are favorites for the excellent quality; some make the list because of historical significance, and others just because they had cool set lists. So it is a Top Ten List of Unofficial Live Recordings, but it is my list, and you might choose entirely different shows.

One thing to note is that I'm identifying shows by city and date first and foremost, and by "title" secondarily. During the Elevation tour, the U2 community saw the introduction of the SHN file format. With that, more people found themselves getting direct copies of master tapes from the taper, rather than going through a commercial bootleg company as had been the norm for many. So while Chicago, 1987, is most widely available as the commercial bootleg Rock's Hottest Ticket, those who want to search a little harder can find the SHN set from the master tape of the recording with all the taping and transfer history intact.

So what do I consider a Top Ten? Here in no particular order are ten recordings I enjoy, ten recordings which I keep pulling from the shelf to listen to time after time.

Chicago, April 29, 1987 -- Rock's Hottest Ticket

This show is an audience recording of the Joshua Tree tour in Chicago from the first leg of that tour. U2 fans have often said that this is the audience recording against which all others should be measured -- it is good, but I would not necessarily make the same claims. One of my favorite moments of the show is when the band launches into "Springhill Mining Disaster" -- having lived in Springhill, that one always catches my ear when I hear Bono sing it. Particularly amusing to me is his declaration that they aren't the Beatles; so stop the whistling until the song is done. U2 didn't always take their fame with a bit of humour as they did in the '90s. As happens from time to time, another bootleg has the same name -- Rock's Hottest Ticket -- but that one is a recording from the European tour in the summer of 1987. If you're searching for this one make sure you are looking for Chicago. There are other commercial pressings of this show, but Rock's Hottest Ticket is generally recognized as the nicest version of this show. Copies in SHN format from the original master tapes have recently begun to circulate as I mentioned earlier.

Edmonton, June 15, 1997 -- Amazing Grace

Everybody's list of top ten shows is going to be swayed slightly by shows they have attended. The two PopMart shows in Edmonton were my first U2 live experience, and I was lucky that a professional video crew captured one of the shows. The audio from that video makes up this boot, Amazing Grace. Edmonton was a city that had never seen U2 before; you can hear that in the crowd, and how Bono feeds off the crowd on this night. This show also features "Slow Dancing," which was rarely performed on the tour. It was a tight performance, nature added to the light display with a spectacular lightning storm, and U2 definitely let Edmonton know how much they enjoyed their time in the city. Even the audience recordings from that night document an incredible evening, a crowd that just wants more and more, and the boys in U2 giving it their all, but this specific one is a soundboard quality recording and just sounds incredible.

Boston, May 6, 1983 -- The Complete Boston Tapes

There is no mistaking U2's love for Boston. It was one of the first cities in the United States to embrace U2, and the early shows in Boston have an energy which is unmistakable. This recording is a soundboard recording, and the sound is amazing for such an early show. This two-disc set captures the entire show, something which other bootlegs of this show fail to do. It is cool to hear an early U2 on tour, and there is some great sounding early material in this set.

Dublin, December 31, 1989 -- New Year's Eve

Sometimes you just have to have a show because of its historical significance. This is one of those shows. This show was broadcast live to the world and is the last in a series of concerts at the Point Depot in Dublin. This series of shows is where U2 announced their intentions to go away and "dream it all up again." Although there would be some make-up shows in Rotterdam at the start of January, this series of concerts was meant to wrap up the tour. It's worth trying to find all four nights in Dublin. All exist in a soundboard quality recording. But the actual New Year's show is the one you see in many must-have listings. Propaganda even printed a sleeve for the cassettes people would make of this one. It is as close as U2's gone to giving us a completely released recording of live material; they gave us the artwork and gave us the broadcast, you just had to figure out how to keep a copy. Don't pass up the other three nights. If you have a way of obtaining all four, they are worth it -- a very solid recording, with just an amazing vibe.

San Jose, April 20, 2001 -- The Last of the Rock Stars

There are a couple of recordings of this show out in trading circles. The recording I am thinking of is the one captured using Schoeps microphones. This is an audience recording, but in quality it rivals that of Rock's Hottest Ticket. It sounds amazing to listen to, and the crowd noise is far from intrusive on your listening pleasure. However, quality alone would not put it on my list. There were other Elevation shows that have recordings that sound similar. But the night of April 20th was a night that Bono would later call one of his favorite nights of the tour. It was also the night when the Elevation Tour got its first shakeup. And from a historical standpoint it was the first time a song from Zooropa was played on North American soil. Really a good, strong show, and it just sounds beautiful on this particular recording. I am still kicking myself that I didn't go to this one when I had the opportunity and the tickets...

Dublin, August 28, 1993 -- Zootopia

The hometown concerts are always fun. This one is no exception. Another show that was broadcast live, this show sounds really great. You can find different versions of this show -- Zoo Europa is the most predominant but is incomplete. The entire U2 performance is included on Zoo Europa, but other fun bits like the video confessional have been cut out of the recording. It's worth it to keep looking for a copy of Zootopia which includes these missing bits. Some highlights of this show, which make it one of my favorites? The inclusion of the Zooropa material, which was never extensively part of a live set on any tour -- "Numb," "Stay" and "The First Time" all make an appearance here. Bono's Macphisto routine on this night includes a call to the United Nations, which is always a humorous little spot in the midst of the show, and the intro to "Ultraviolet" includes a small bit of the Beatles' "Help" which is quite beautiful on this recording, and often finds me digging this disc out just to hear that bit.

Boston, June 9, 2001 -- Free Ray Bourque

Another show where I may be swayed by having been in attendance, but I think this would list among my favorites even if I hadn't been there. This is an audience recording made with Core Sound Stealth Cardioids microphones. The last show of four, U2 radically changes the set list and pulls some rarities out for this show. Just the difference from a typical set list makes this a nice, unique show to listen to, as does the inclusion of "Party Girl," which had not been played since 1993. The sound has some issues which you usually expect from an audience recording -- the occasional screams louder than others -- but overall this is a nice recording, and better than most. If you're just looking to collect a couple of shows from the Elevation tour, then it's nice to find a nice typical set list from the early legs, and a copy of this show as a balance.

Denver, November 7, 1987 -- Back in Denver / Caught on 35mm

Another recording that features a combination of factors which brings it to this list. First the sound quality -- this one is a soundboard recording, and really sounds great. There are several versions of this, including one titled Mountains and Deserts but the two mentioned here surpass the quality of that bootleg. It's also the first of two concerts in Denver. The second night became famous for its inclusion in Rattle and Hum, and this show was a warm up night for that recording. And U2 are obviously ready with a strong performance and a nice, solid set list.

Chicago, March 21, 1985 -- Four at Four

There is a more common version of this recording called The Flame and the Fire but that's an incomplete version and sounds muddier than this commercial pressing. There's also a SHN set available from the master recording, but I am told it sounds very similar to Four at Four. When you start collecting recordings you find yourself saying at some point along the way, "I should try to find one recording from each tour." So I'm including this one to represent the Unforgettable Fire era. I find there's something about this recording, this performance, that outshines others from the Unforgettable Fire tour. I have never sat down and dissected what I enjoy about this one, but judging from how often I grab it from the shelf it deserves its place on my list.

Dublin, February 26, 1980 -- My Hometown

A historical moment that finds its way into my top ten by being the oldest of recordings I have. I'm not even sure which version of the show I have on cassette, slowly wearing itself out in my car's cassette deck. This was one of the first live shows I found, and was well treasured. This one features songs that have never gone on to be recorded in the studio such as "Silver Lining," "The Speed of Life," "Jack in the Box" and one of my favorites, "Cartoon World." The opportunity to hear these early U2 songs makes this one a worthy recording. The quality is decent for something from that era, and is one of the earliest soundboard recordings of U2 that exists.

[Aaron Sams, webmaster of u2wanderer.org, has been collecting live recordings since he ran across his first live tape in 1988. Just when he thought he was getting ahead of it all, writable CDs were invented and it was time to start replacing all of the old cassettes. He has recently taken a leave of absence from the trading community to pursue other interests, but will be back at looking for recordings when the next tour arrives.]

© @U2/Sams, 2002.