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"I find someone like [James] Joyce quite rock 'n' roll, because he was bending and messing with words."

-- Bono

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U2 turns 360 stadium tour into attendance-shattering sellouts

USA Today, October 05, 2009
By: Edna Gundersen

 

CHICAGO — You don't need a calculator to figure out that U2 x 360 = XXL. Massive describes almost every aspect of U2's revolutionary 360° Tour, a futuristic juggernaut that defies the recession as it crushes attendance records, rewrites the stadium concert playbook and launches the Irish quartet into even higher orbit.

The imposing centerpiece, a four-pronged UFO anchored by a glowing 164-foot pylon and cylindrical LED screen, looms over a sprawling stage with footbridges that glide around ringed catwalks. U2's soaring anthems prove equally immense pounding through a state-of-the-art sound system suspended high enough to allow clear sight lines for all.

"It's a bit of a shock to go to work and find 80,000 people on the shop floor," singer Bono, 49, says as he's whisked by a police escort to his hotel after the first of two recent sellouts at Soldier Field. "The magic act is that the spaceship disappears. The people get bigger, and the place gets smaller. There's not one grand overarching theme, but there is a sense of location, where you're a tiny speck in the cosmos. It's intimate, by the way. The show takes you through all these different worlds and mood swings. Catharsis is the posh word, I think."

Ka-ching is the afterword. The tour, U2's first U.S. stadium outing since PopMart in 1997-98, is expected to rack up $112 million from 1.2 million tickets at 20 shows during its current North American trek after grossing $187 million from 1.8 million tickets at 24 shows in Europe, according to Billboard. It should start turning a profit as the second leg ends Oct. 28 in Vancouver. The band's first tour under its 12-year deal with concert promoter Live Nation resumes May 30 in Mexico City, with U.S. dates to follow in June and July.

"At the first show in Barcelona (June 30), we realized, wow, it's working incredibly well," guitarist Edge, 48, says the next day on a drive to the stadium, after he and Bono spend 20 minutes signing autographs for a sea of fans outside the hotel. "On a good night, the production, the songs, the audience, the videos, the architecture become this amazing event. Often in these big stadiums, you feel, 'Why am I here? I could be home listening to the CD.' This show makes sense of playing stadiums."

It may only make sense for U2, a band with the fan base, budget and musical might to pull it off.

The tour's in-the-round configuration boosts capacity by roughly 20%, enabling the band to break attendance records in every venue. On Sept. 24, U2 packed 84,472 into Giants Stadium, the venue's largest crowd ever, eclipsing the 82,948 drawn to Pope John Paul II in 1995.

Each of the three "claw" structures that leapfrog along the itinerary requires 37 trucks and cost upward of $40 million. The trek entails a total fleet of 200 trucks, a crew of 400 and a daily overhead of $750,000.

Though the band's No Line on the Horizon album got off to a slow start, moving 1 million copies since March, frenzied reaction to seven tracks in 360's set list is generating chart boosts. The band has sold 34 million albums and 11.2 million digital songs since 1991, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Alone in their field

Perhaps the only act riding parallel tracks of fearless artistic urges and aggressive mainstream reach, U2 may be blazing a one-band trail as it enters its fourth decade. When the biggest band on earth stages the biggest show in history, the question arises: Who will follow? There's no sign on the horizon of U2's heir apparent.

Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Kenny Chesney and the Elton John/Billy Joel match-up can fill stadiums in some markets, but only the Rolling Stones, a generation older, share U2's global demand and touring ambition, says Ray Waddell, Billboard's editor of touring.

"U2 is selling out stadiums around the world and breaking attendance records in the process. A lot of bands that have been around this long have peaked commercially, and that certainly does not seem to be the case with U2. Whether or not they achieve the greatness of past albums with No Line is debatable, but it would be hard to deny that they're trying. This has never been a band content with the status quo.

"As for who's next, right now one could only guess," Waddell says. "Many in the industry say Coldplay or Kings of Leon are possibilities. Others think that the days of multiple stadium-level artists are over. Getting there is hard enough; staying there is much more difficult."

U2 bassist Adam Clayton, 49, shares that skepticism.

"Everything is so fragmented," he says from his hotel suite overlooking Chicago's skyline. "There might always be a pop phenomenon of the year that will fill a stadium, but in terms of people who build a solid career, I don't know."

Drummer Larry Mullen Jr., 47, can envision a stadium future for Kings of Leon, "who were rabbits in the headlights when they played on our last tour."

"Who would have imagined they'd have one of the greatest albums (Only by the Night) a couple years later?" says Mullen, soaking up sun outside the catering hall backstage. "They have the swagger and the capacity to go all the way. There's no blueprint. Now you're seeing a lot of bands prepared to learn and try something different. That's what it was always about for us."

Ideas for the bold framework of the 360° Tour have been brewing in Bono's head since 2001's Elevation arena tour.

"I started drawing, and building things with spoons," Bono says. "Over the years, I've had people tell me I'm certifiable. I had a lot of rolling eyes in my direction from promoters, but Live Nation was very encouraging. (Live Nation global music CEO) Arthur Fogel said, 'If you've got an instinct, follow through on it. We will work with you and finance you.' He said this business is Neanderthal, that people are not getting value."

In late 2006 at Honolulu's Aloha Stadium, last stop on the Vertigo tour, Bono walked the field with U2's longtime collaborator, stage designer Willie Williams, in an attempt to envision his sonic temple. He next enlisted designer/architect Mark Fisher.

'So close to bankruptcy'

"We had to start building it six months before the tour, before tickets went on sale," Bono says. Inflating the risk: the music industry slump and a global recession. "When we built Zoo TV (the 1992-93 tour), we were so close to bankruptcy that if 5% fewer people went, U2 was bankrupt. Even in our irresponsible, youthful and fatal disregard of such material matters, it was terrifying. I want to put on an extraordinary show, but I'd like to own my house when it's over."

Meeting demand and lowering ticket prices (seats range from $30 to $250) were catalysts for the move to stadiums.

On the band's past two arena tours, where capacity typically capped at 15,000 to 20,000, "tickets were a little more expensive and demand was so big that when the secondary market got hold of them, they ended up changing hands for hundreds, even thousands of dollars," Edge says. "Now we're close to supplying demand, so you don't get that scalping action."

U2 knows its steel cathedral isn't sufficient bait to entice the masses. The set's a jaw-dropper, but it's the band's larger-than-life performance that has fans cheering.

"There's an ease, a looseness to the performance that I didn't imagine we could achieve," Edge says. "We came out of the punk-rock, four-to-the-floor thing, a straightforward sound. That's a revelation, that the band has become much more sophisticated rhythmically."

The show typically serves up seven No Line tunes, three or four played at the top, a defiant refusal to be locked into the past. For Mullen, U2's evolution crystallizes in the techno-twisted take on "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Crazy Tonight," during which he pounds an African djembe drum while strolling the runway.

"We take a pop song and turn it into this dance rave madness -- in a stadium," he says. "How did I get here? It's not what any of us expected to be doing 30 years later. That's the guiding light. It's about our need to expand and our audience accepting things they may not even understand."

On to the next stage

Whether playing stadiums or arenas in the future, the band won't recycle ideas, Edge vows. "It's important to challenge ourselves creatively and not take the soft option," he says. "That's so ingrained in the band that we'll continue to grow and develop. We owe it to ourselves and our fans to take it further out there and break new ground."

Clayton says his ambitions for the band are humbler these days.

"I want our music to be relevant," he says. "They don't have to be big-selling records. Hit records are absolutely the business you should be in if you're in popular music, and we'll always strive for that. But it's a big privilege to be able to do what you love to do. You haven't lost control of it. You're not doing it to cover bad debts or bad deals. And it's great working outdoors."

Mullen, regarded as U2's moral compass, says his drive stems in part from a belief that fans are owed rebates.

"It's an Irish-Catholic guilt thing," he says. "We should have been better and worked harder. In the '80s, we were green. We lurched. We were successful despite ourselves. Now there's a sense that we've got more to do, that we can continue to push it, to take risks. Complacency is not something we're good at or comfortable with."

© USA Today, 2009.

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