Wednesday, August 10, 2011

In the City of Blinding Lights: U2 live at Spartan Stadium

U2 360 Tour
Live at Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI

June 26th, 2011

It's been less than two weeks since U2 wrapped up their record smashing (and soon to be legendary) 360 tour in New Brunswick. The tour, which was based around the massive "claw" stage that Bono reportedly designed using forks at breakfast one morning, grossed over $736 million and sold 7.2 million tickets, becoming both the highest grossing and highest attended tour in history. It's pretty clear from those stats that U2 are still the biggest band on the planet.

I had the privilege of seeing one of the dozen or so last shows of the marathon tour, and it was, quite simply, a mindblowing show: a redefinition of the concert going experience. When openers Florence + the Machine took the stage on the gorgeous summer evening of June 26th, I was filled with anticipation. U2 has been one of my favorite bands since 7th or 8th grade. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was the first album I ever downloaded onto my first iPod, and more than a handful of their songs sit among my all time favorites. And even though a lot of people my age seem to have written U2 off in recent years, the past decade has seen some of their best work, and even without that, it would be impossible for me to put down a band with a pair of albums as good as The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby under their belts. Then of course, we can't forget about their legendary live shows. Despite the fact that the idea of stadium shows have never really attracted me (I'd much prefer to be front and center in a small club), I'd always wanted to see U2 live, and after finally getting the chance to do so, I can say with some assurance that their music couldn't possibly sound as perfect as it did that night in any other environment.

Florence were decent openers. I like a few of their songs a lot, and those were the highlight of their set, but they fell victim to the common pitfall of the opening act: the sound quality just wasn't very good. No matter though: by the time U2 took the stage, the sun was setting and there was a pleasant summer breeze blowing through the stadium. I at once knew this was going to be a great night, even if Bono didn't enter from the rafters dressed as Spiderman as my brother and I had hoped he might. The band kicked off the show with four back to back numbers from Achtung Baby, which quickly became the most well represented record of the night. None of them are favorites of mine from that album, but "Even Better Than the Real Thing" was a killer opener, and "Mysterious Ways" had the crowd shouting along and pumping their fists. I could have done without "Until the End of the World", in exchange for say, "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" or "Ultraviolet," but that's a small complaint, as the four songs kicked off the set very well.

After taking their trip back to 1991, the band launched into their first hit, the dancey 1980 single "I Will Follow," yet another crowd-pleaser. Fast forward almost 30 years to "Get On Your Boots," an equally dancey number and the first single from their 2009 album, No Line on the Horizon. I've never understood why the song was chosen as a lead single, as it's probably one of the band's weakest songs, period, so I was fairly bored during that one, and found myself wondering if the entire night was going to be a rundown of songs I liked, but didn't love. Luckily, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," part of the legendary opening trio from 1987's The Joshua Tree, immediately washed my worries away, and was the first of many chill-inducing moments that night. Hearing the entire audience of 100,000 belt most of the first verse while Bono just sat back and played conductor, was one of the greatest moments I've ever beheld in a concert. And the Springsteen "Promised Land" snippet at the end, to pay tribute to the recently passed away saxophone legend Clarence Clemons, almost had me a bit choked up.

"Stay (Faraway, So Close)," an underrated gem from 1996's Zooropa, was one the biggest surprises and highlights of the night. Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton took a breather as, in Bono's words, he and the Edge tried to "shrink the stadium into a small club or a pub." Bono's voice floated through the gorgeous ballad with only the Edge's acoustic guitar for accompaniment, and it was stunning. That led to a pair of songs ("Beautiful Day" and "Elevation") from their late career masterpiece All That You Can't Leave Behind, the former featuring the usual "transmission" from the International Space Station, with an astronaut speaking the bridge. "Pride (In the Name of Love)," sounded appropriately big in it's live setting, and made me wish for a few more tracks from 1984's masterful, if a bit uneven, Unforgettable Fire: "Bad" or the title track would be welcome in any U2 setlist, but alas, "Pride" would be the band's only foray into that record tonight.

The stage was a thing to behold throughout all of this: the massive multimedia screen gave everyone in the stadium a good view of the band and was often used to add extra, visual layers to songs. Lights flashed and the occasional firework shot into the air, and as the night grew darker, the stage just got cooler. On "Zooropa" and "City of Blinding Lights" (appropriately), the media screen split into hundreds of different pieces and surrounded the stage, making the proceedings look even more like an alien spacecraft than they already had. The next part of the set was pretty much an opportunity to show off the light show this stage could put on, and rest assured, pictures aren't enough to do it justice. Not even the incredibly mundane flamenco "remix" of "Crazy Tonight" could dampen my spirits, though I was happy when the band redeemed that small misstep with another classic: "Sunday Bloody Sunday," with it's persistent drumbeat and Bono's immortal vocal, certainly didn't disappoint live. And "Walk On," which is a favorite of mine that might have been the song that got me into this band in the first place, has never sounded better to me than it did as the main set closer that night. It sounded triumphant and massive, standing up next to the very best of U2's classic material.

But the encore was the highlight, with what are arguably the two best songs U2 has ever recorded, and two of the best songs ever written, period. The aching "One" is still as flawless and emotionally moving as it has ever been. I've heard better live versions of this song than the one I saw that night, most specifically the one (no pun intended) from the youtube Rose Bowl show, but seeing the song live was as great as I predicted it would be, and yet despite that song's greatness and despite how well the band played it, it still couldn't even hold a candle to what was next. The song gave way to sustained guitar chords and a brief snippet of the Shirelles classic "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow", before, at long last, the Edge's legendary guitar riff echoed through the stadium, heralding the arrival of "Where the Streets Have No Name." It would be nearly impossible for me to describe how I was feeling when that sound hit my ears, but I'll try. Ever since I saw them play that song on TV at the Super Bowl in 2002, with the names of every 9/11 victim rising on a massive banner behind them, I've wanted to see them play it live. If, by some ridiculous miracle, I ever get to perform a show in a stadium, that's the song I would close with. It's just such a beautiful, massive song, and hearing it live that night moved me in a way that few songs ever have. Throughout the intro, chills shot through my entire body, there were tears in my eyes and a huge smile on my face, and then, as Bono began to sing, I belted along at the top of my lungs, as if my very being depended on it. I outstretched my arms and felt the late night summer breeze blow through my hair and I felt perfect: this is what a summer concert should be. This is what I wanted to do with my life.

In many ways, the second (and third) encores that followed were just bonuses. We got "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," a soundtrack tune from the abysmal film Batman Forever. We got "With or Without You," to complete the holy Joshua Tree trinity. And we got "Moment of Surrender," though by that point my brother and I were sprinting back towards our car so we could get out of town (or at least out of the parking garage) before it became impossible to do so. We heard the entire song as we ran across the MSU campus, but I think I still regret leaving early, as the bootleg I have indicates that, at the opening of the song, Bono asked the audience to, "just for a second, think about this beautiful man named Clarence Clemons, who we just said goodbye to. Not really a man, more of a force...a force of nature with music just spilling out of him," before launching into the night's final song. And at the end of the song, Bono railed off one last Springsteen/Clemons tribute, this time by speaking the final lines of "Jungleland," over the last stanzas of "Surrender." I, for one, can't think of a better way to describe Clemons and his Jungleland sax solo than with the words Bono used: a force of nature.

We go to concerts not to hear perfect reproductions of our favorite songs, but to hear them and, with a great band, feel them in new ways. In that way, U2 may be the greatest live band working today. Bruce and the E-Street band played a better setlist and a better show overall the one time I saw them live (and, since it's on topic, Clarence was electric that night), but something must be said for the kind of experience that U2 gives on these massive stadium tours. It's risky, because so much of it ends up being about the stage, but then again, people seem to forget how talented a band U2 really is. Even after the Edge's style has been imitated thousands of times, there's still nothing like hearing that opening guitar riff from "Streets" echo through a stadium. Any band would be lucky to have a rhythm section as rock solid as the Larry Mullen Jr./Adam Clayton team, and say what you want about Bono's constant "saving the world" shtick, but don't forget how much range and emotional power he can convey with his voice. I mean, hell, The Joshua Tree might be one of the most well sung records in the history of rock and roll. With that much talent and with a slew of great records and even greater songs, I would have been completely fine just seeing them rock an arena, no frills, like Bruce does. But then again, they wouldn't really be U2 if they weren't going for this kind of sheer excess. And I can't think of a whole lot of bands who can do it as well as they can.


1. Even Better Than The Real Thing
2. The Fly
3. Mysterious Ways
4. Until The End Of The World
5. I Will Follow
6. Get On Your Boots
7. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For / The Promised Land (Snippet)
8. Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
9. Beautiful Day / Space Oddity (Snippet)
10. Elevation
11. Pride (In The Name Of Love)
12. Miss Sarajevo
13. Zooropa
14. City Of Blinding Lights
15. Vertigo / TV Eye (Snippet)
16. Crazy Tonight / Discotheque (Snippet) / Psycho Killer (Snippet) / Life During Wartime (Snippet)
17. Sunday Bloody Sunday
18. Scarlet
19. Walk On / You'll Never Walk Alone (Snippet)


20. One
21. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (Snippet) / Where The Streets Have No Name
22. Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me
23. With or Without You
24. Moment of Surrender / Jungleland (Snippet)

No comments:

Post a Comment