"A performance must be larger than life, but to be worthwhile you must have an element of humanity."
@U2 Lists: U2's Tour Video Screens
From The Cool To The Jaw-Dropping-Mind-Blowing-Giant-Head-Awesome
September 30, 2017
Since the ZooTV tour in 1991, U2 have been consistently responsible for some of the biggest breakthroughs in music tour screen technology. The only performances seen by the public that surpass them are those used during the Olympics opening ceremonies. I’d like to review the screens they’ve used, from the just cool to the holy-cow-how-is-this-possible?
yThe Elevation tour was a response to the grandiosity of the PopMart tour, and the screen design clearly represented the band’s strong push away from PopMart’s scale. The modular screens could rise and sink back down into the stage, which meant they could be a central part of the performance or completely disappear from view. Songs like “Mysterious Ways” used them effectively, with silhouettes of women dancing on them in the style of James Bond movie credits. “The Fly” featured red hearts and Bono splattered against the screens like the titular insect against a windshield. They were a minor decoration in a show that was much more about connecting to the audience on a personal level than a technological level.
7. Vertigo Outdoors
This screen was designed to be a giant wall for the band to present images on, nothing more. It was impressive at the time for its size, but didn’t break any ground that PopMart hadn’t explored almost a decade earlier, and PopMart did it with more panache. The design of the screen and stage was used again in 2016 for the Dreamfest charity show in San Francisco, which suggests that U2 or an entity related to them may still be hanging on to the entire original setup. It had high-level functionality, but was lacking in personality.
ZooTV started it all. The video technology wasn’t there to support a single, large screen until PopMart, so the band went with banks of televisions instead. U2 approached Panasonic to be sponsors for the tour, with the goal of convincing them to provide the televisions, but Panasonic declined. U2 ended up springing for the TVs themselves, and I suspect their maintenance was one of the main reasons ZooTV turned no profit outside of T-shirt sales. Watching a ZooTV performance on video is still extremely impressive to this day, but that is in spite of the TVs, rather than because of them. The TVs were one component of an immense production, not the center point that newer, cooler video screens were. The refitted Trabants cum spotlights were as important and cool as the screens, as was the novel use of a B-stage for the first time (yes, U2 invented the B-stage. How sweet is that?). But this is where U2’s ambition in advancing video technology first showed itself, and the entire concert touring industry owes it a huge debt of gratitude.
It’s tempting to say that this screen existed on another level, but the truth is that it existed on multiple levels. I walked into the U2360 show in Vancouver, B.C. and was flabbergasted at the structure that held this screen. My friend is a mechanical engineer and his jaw was agape at what he was looking at in Nashville. Events both that large and advanced are normally reserved for rocket launches and Olympic opening ceremonies. The stage was vast, and the screen was its centerpiece. It was a true 360-degree screen, designed so that the viewers would barely experience the seam where the 0 degree and 360 degree met. It swallowed the band up in a blue tornado during “Zooropa,” showed their massive heads bopping and clapping to the beat during “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” then almost disappeared for the red laser show of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way).” Bono said the stage was a spaceship, and little Lemonhead, the astronaut Zoo Baby, was captain. It was an alien craft in the middle of a rock show. The stage was the most ambitious that has ever been made for a rock show. It was also too vast and distant and unreachable, in ways that the PopMart stage was accused of but never actually was. The U2360 shows I attended will go down as the biggest events I ever participate in.
If ZooTV was the spark, then PopMart was the fire. PopMart started the histrionics about how U2’s concerts were overwhelming their music. U2360 featured a screen that literally engulfed the band, but it didn’t produce anywhere near the outcry that PopMart got. The PopMart screen was matched with a surgically separated McDonald’s arch, a too-funky mirrorball lemon, and the biggest olive to ever sit in your martini. It was the first exposure to what the imagination of U2 could come up with when ambition and budget burst open. At the time, it was the largest TV screen that had ever been made. It was much lower resolution than some of its descendants, but the large LED lights gave a magical and cold look to the band in live videos. U2 have surpassed this screen in both size and quality, but it truly pushed the limits of what a concert stage was capable of. Other artists have tried to imitate it, but only U2 have surpassed it.
3. Joshua Tree 2017
My bet is that the design of the Joshua Tree 2017 was made to mimic an LP gatefold album, the sleeve opened up with a massive picture of the band against a desert landscape inside. The center of the stage has a practical crease in it to accommodate Larry’s drum kit, but the crease also serves the design point of being the fold in the album sleeve. The massive black and white images that appear for “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” are clearer than any digital images I’ve ever seen, in any format or size. They say that no camera or screen has ever been made that can compete with the visual quality of the human eye, but this show gets impressively close. The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour hasn’t been heavy on surprises, but that crystal-clear image quality was one of the biggest U2 shocks I’ve ever had. The stage designed to mimic the layout of the 1987 Joshua Tree tour in a simple (though not simplistic) form, but it uses one of the most high-resolution screens in the world.
2. Vertigo Indoor
The Vertigo Indoor screen wasn’t the highest resolution screen they’ve ever used, or the biggest, or the brightest, but it was definitely the coolest. Vertical strands of LED lights formed curtains that were relatively low-tech, but high-impact in the live setting. People could see through the curtains at almost any angle, which let them see the band and the images the band were displaying simultaneously. The band were able to literally walk through their video screens. Like the large LEDs used in the PopMart screen, they were a beautiful backdrop for viewing the band up close. Their ability to be rolled up and down as needed made the screens extremely versatile, something that continued through the U2360 and Innocence + Experience tours. The lights rushing by and giant Japanese letters scrolling up on the curtains during “City Of Blinding Lights” is one of my most memorable U2 concert experiences. The screen was relatively low-tech, but it was high-concept and served the Vertigo tour perfectly.
1. Innocence + Experience
This screen had it all. As an arena screen, it was massive. To my knowledge, it was completely novel in how it played to the arena lengthwise rather than across the width. The Innocence + Experience stage was shaped like a dumbbell, so the connector bar between the two ends was a perfect place to put a screen if they wanted maximum impact without going 360.
The opening night of the tour was so exciting. Like the release of “Songs Of Innocence,” there was almost zero information about the tour given out in advance. In me, this insecurity led to doubt. I should not have doubted them at all. Walking into the arena, all we saw was a thick, long screen hanging from the top of the ceiling and right above the dumbbell-shaped stage. The band started playing at one end of the stage and did the first part of the set without the screen.
Seeing the screen in action was one of the most astonishing moments of my U2 concert-going life. Bono was walking INSIDE the screen! Holy word-I-can’t-publish! As the animated Cedarwood Road slid by, Bono strolled down his childhood street, passing homes and giant wolves and cars and immense boots and cherry blossom trees. The band could play INSIDE their graphics and interact with them. It was like a music video made real. Giant Bono held real Edge in his hand during “Until The End Of The World.” A neon yellow Berlin Wall digitally shifted and slid to hide and then expose the band during “Invisible.” U2 danced and played inside their giant, swirling, DayGlo heads in “Even Better Than The Real Thing” (a continuation of their bouncing, clapping heads from U2360, and a predecessor to their geometric and vaporous heads in The Joshua Tree 2017). That first night in Vancouver was the most amazing a live experience I’ve ever had with this band. And Bono says its successor is coming back next year!
(c) @U2/Ryan, 2017