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"I hang out with every set. . . . From the penthouse to the pavement but under the pavement."

-- Bono

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U2's massive intimacy

U2’s 360 Tour is the latest evolution of the stadium tour, one that tries to be both big and small

National Post, September 19, 2009
By: Mike Doherty, Weekend Post

 

It's no secret ambition bites the nails of success -- or so Bono likes to tell us. And after taking on world famine, war, and pestilence, he and his U2 bandmates have set themselves arguably their biggest task yet: trying to make a stadium show feel intimate.

On their 360 Tour, they've spared no expense to do so: they've commissioned a 150-foot steel structure housing a 54-ton video screen made up of a million separate pieces, all of which takes four days to put together (and reputedly 120 trucks to cart across North America, although this was the one figure their tour publicist declined to confirm -- justifying their carbon footprint to the press, it seems, would be one miracle too many).

But why should it take so much effort, material, and money to create intimacy? The rock 'n' roll stadium show has always been a strange beast, created from commercial and logistical, rather than artistic, concerns. Thrust into an enormous space designed for sporting events, what's a band to do?

When the original stadium band toured across North America, no one had a clue how it would work, and thus expectations were low. Footage of The Beatles' famous first concert at Shea Stadium reveals how little it took to make large numbers of young fans scream in 1965. The band played for a mere half-hour on an unadorned stage near second base on an otherwise empty baseball field, using a direly inadequate sound system -- they couldn't hear each other play, and the 55,000 in attendance saw very little, and heard nothing but their own prolonged hormonal shrieks.

Dissatisfied, the Fab Four retired from live performance just a year later, leaving their successors to cope with fans who had higher demands. In the early '70s, video screens sprang up above stages to ensure that stars always looked larger-than-life. At first, the strategy had problems: a 1971 Billboard magazine article lamented that the black-and-white screen projections at a concert by the band Chicago "created an impression in the rear seats that we were being fobbed off with a low-budget TV show. High-budget visuals, though, have since proved difficult to resist. In 1988, The Edge told Rolling Stone, "With U2, it's the music that makes the atmosphere. There's no laser show, no special effects." Four years later, on the Zoo TV tour, he and his bandmates would appear on stage flanked by 36 video screens showing a flashy jumble of images. 1997's PopMart Tour used an 8000-square-foot next-generation LED screen as a backdrop, and the 360 Tour has a 14,000-square-foot cylindrical video screen made up whose interlocking segments can detach from one another and expand into a giant cocoon.

And yet, one doesn't want to lose the human figure entirely; intimacy shouldn't only be an illusion created by the proximity of screens. But how to bring the artists physically closer to their fans? In 1974, David Bowie sang "Space Oddity" from a crane suspended above his audience -- which worked brilliantly, apart from when it failed to retract and he had to crawl back to the stage along its arm. Recently, Coldplay have taken to serenading punters in the nosebleed sections directly, by running up to the aisles with acoustic guitars. U2 have always been better at swaggering than sprinting; for Zoo TV, they built their first "b-stage," where they could go and strum stripped-down songs, pretending they were still that little band from Dublin in the early '80s. The 360 Tour, with performances in the round, finds them reaching out onto the stadium floor with a great circular catwalk.

So once you have managed to be seen by the masses while maintaining your common humanity, the next step is to entertain, usually by playing with concepts of scale. Since the mid-'70s, bands have gleefully trotted out giant versions of animals or objects that look as though they'd be normal-sized if they were right in front of you. Pink Floyd had immense pigs that flew (and a pyramid that wasn't supposed to but did anyway, if the wind was strong enough); The Rolling Stones commissioned gargantuan inflatable lips and a gigantic yellow dog; Fleetwood Mac built a 70-foot penguin that would never properly inflate. For PopMart, U2 erected a 100-foot swizzle-stick, a 12-foot olive, and a 40-foot lemon out of which they would emerge -- when it didn't get stuck, forcing them to sneak out an "escape hatch."

For the 360 Tour, the stage set itself is an oversized prop: Bono calls it the "spaceship," although it looks curiously like a four-limbed version of the spindly-legged alien invaders that Tom Cruise battled in 2005's War of the Worlds. The band members play inside its mammoth carapace, atop which a pole stretches into the sky, bearing aloft a great disco ball that shines glittering lights all around the stadium.

At the Rogers Centre in Toronto this past Wednesday, it was as if the band had descended to colonize the stadium with their message of intergalactic hope: they beamed in Bowie's "Space Oddity" before their set and signed off with a recording of Elton John's "Rocket Man"; in between, astronaut Frank DeWinne recited one of the verses to their song "Your Blue Room." When you can play music with someone who's in space, the idea goes, you're shrinking our corner of the universe down to size.

And in truth, this is what the best stadium shows do -- they flabbergast us with special effects, but they also create a feeling of intimacy by bringing everything, and everyone, closer together. In Toronto, U2 offered a few such moments: as Bono backed off the mic for the first verse of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and the audience sang spontaneously along with the Biggest Karaoke Back-Up Band of All Time; as Bono and The Edge cut back on the bombast and hushed us with a unexpectedly moving acoustic duet version of "Stay"; and at the very end, as all the lights went off and Bono suggested, "Let's turn this place into the Milky Way." Hoisting our own video-screen props -- our cell-phones -- we created a stadium full of tiny stars while the band played the hymn-like "Moment of Surrender." Commander Bono may have been resorting to a hoary big-concert cliché, but his strategy worked -- it's a safe bet that everyone in the stadium, at that point, felt as though they were not alone.

© The National Post Company, 2009.

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