Saturday, October 31, 2009

U2 360 - live in 2009 (part II)

Beginning with the end...

There were 2 encores: the first one, not unpredictable: megahits One and Where the Streets Have No Name with a little surprise in between. The second one was much less predictable, hearkening back to the unnerving appearance of the devil MacPhisto in his platform shoes at the end of the Zooropa concerts -- an astounding alter-ego with a different kind of message and even a new sort of sound: U2 as pure, delicious, theatre; theology as performance art.

At the end of Wednesday night’s U2360 show, after the conventional encore of Big Hits, the band and their singer reappear -- or rather, a shadow wrapped in a suit of lights where the singer should be -- to sing Ultraviolet. Not a big hit by any stretch, not a selection included “just for the fans.” Not going through the conventional motions. Pay attention, folks.
Sometimes I feel like checking out
I wanna get it wrong, can't always be strong…
Feel like trash, you make me feel clean

I'm in the black, can't see or be seen
Baby, light my way
…sings the shadow in the suit of red beams, into a glowing ring of light that amplifies his plea and physically lifts his weight as he dangles out over his audience.

Then the shadow takes on the dark ambiguity of With or Without You –
My hands are tied, my body bruised
She's got me with nothing left to win
And nothing else to lose
And you give yourself away

He is tired, cynical, maybe angry … his face is obscured, his voice is drained of feeling. With or Without You has been an emotional centrepiece on previous tours; it was profoundly moving in the concert recorded for the Elevation DVD. It’s a fan favourite, it’s a hypnotic love song, it is all these things, and the band is playing it as sweetly and seductively as ever … but the current rendition of it is a jarring, unsettling deconstruction of whatever we think this song is supposed to be.
As the heartbeat of the song quiets behind him, the shadow removes his suit of lights, methodically places it on its hanger and hooks it to the radiant microphone, and very deliberately bids it goodbye: here we have 3 songs for the price of 2.

On the under-appreciated album Pop is a track called Gone, which Bono dedicated to his friend Michael Hutchence shortly after he died (see the Popmart DVD):
You wanted to get somewhere so badly
You had to lose yourself along the way…
Goodbye, you can keep this suit of lights
I'll be up with the sun
I'm not coming down
And I’m already gone…

This final sequence, really a keening coda to a buoyant, triumphant show, seems to me to be a mini-suite of songs purpose-built to frame the concert’s final number, the new song Moment of Surrender. Months back, when I first heard that this was their show-closer, it made me wonder what was afoot. Oh, it’s a very special song (as I wrote earlier), but certainly an unlikely send-off. (For that matter, MacPhisto closed his little concert with Love is Blindness, an anti-anthem if ever there was one.) It had to be deliberate, designed to provoke. Some reviews (fans and professionals) expressed confusion or a shrugging disappointment in the lack of a Big Happy Finish … not surprising. U2 doesn’t want it to be easy: they’re asking us to think. Pushing us to feel. Why -- how -- do they make it hurt so much?

Back to the start

Plenty of people have written their reports of these shows, so I don’t need to do that. But I must try to transpose some of the impressions, some of the marks they left on me.
The show opened with a song most people (if sales of No Line on the Horizon are any indication) don’t know, Breathe. It’s a song about feeling crazy and finding sane. It’s a wall of suffocating noise, and a window on a way out: “I found grace inside a sound … and I can breathe now.” The sound quality inside BC Place is less than perfect, but way better than average for the venue. It’s a concrete cave with an inflated pillow roof. The bass and grinding guitar dig into your sternum … and it feels good.

Three songs in, I find myself in a vision, a living prayer, with Bono on a little bridge – reminds me of the kind that hangs over ponds in a park – hovering just above a sea of faces, singing, “I was born to sing for you … my first cry, it was a joyful noise.” Magnificent. It wasn’t preacherly, it wasn’t explicit. It was instead, reflective. That’s when it occurred to me how Bono has come to make it look easy, in the sense that for him and the wave of music he rides on, it looks so natural. Like a magician who matter-of-factly reveals diamonds in his white-gloved hand, Bono can pause and pray on a tower of joyful noise: Edge, Adam and Larry will hold him up as high as he needs to be heard.
When they get to I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, the noise is deafening. The entire audience sings the first verse. Bono closes the song with Stand By Me, and the crowd picks up the chorus and everyone is lifted by the compassion they find on their own lips. Bono and Edge take it into a gentle duet on Stuck in a Moment – and Bono’s final soulful phrase quotes not his own recording but Scripture: “It’s just a moment, this too shall pass.”

We were especially blessed by a shimmering, swirling and rare performance of The Unforgettable Fire – Willie Williams’ set and lights seemed to take centre stage, giving us a multimedia interpretation of fire and pain and separation and confusion – the band seemed to be almost completely obscured, but I didn’t mind. It was like watching a 3D video, with the band playing live – the Claw is a stunning canvas, designed for dreamy beauty as well as harrowing contortions. It was a perfect interpretation of the song.

The new album is represented by 7 songs, all but one from the in-your-face front half of the record. They are brilliant live. The title track is a pile-driving buzz-saw of disorientation (also unfamiliar to its audience, but no matter—Bono is clearly inspired by it) that U2 uses to take us next into Elevation – which proves once again to be without question one of the best stadium rock songs any band ever created. It’s got beat, structure, balance, sing-along simplicity and substance, all in a magical euphoric brew that lifts the band as much as it lifts all of us. The same should be said of Vertigo, designed for maximum catharsis and defenseless enlightenment – “all I know is that you give me something I can feel/your love is teaching me how to kneel…”

And then the band pushes all that giddy release into a flailing, vertiginous re-mix of a whimsical little pop song called I Know I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight. In the middle of the new album, Bono sings about the importance of lightening up and cutting loose especially when you’re fighting to undo some of the damage in the world. It’s cute and catchy. Most of the audience don’t know it. But that doesn’t prevent the band’s attack on it from cutting us all into little cubist bits – the lyrics are mostly lost in the noise and feedback, but Bono’s challenge is loud and insistent: Will you sing for your sanity? he shouts. The song is long and psychedelic, almost too long, almost out of control and uncomfortable – when abruptly they gear down into images of Iran’s protesting citizens and a straight-no-chaser dose of Sunday Bloody Sunday. Without commentary, without prompts. And the song is more potent and more universal than anyone realized. The band’s outrage is more than Irish.

This is the tour, by the way, where U2 finally dropped Bullet the Blue Sky as a political set piece. It shows up in every concert DVD since Rattle and Hum, and as great a piece of agitprop as it is, it’s been done to death! I cheer its absence on this tour … when they have so much great political material to mine.
The set didn’t give much more than a hat-tip to the overtly political, though – it was wonderful to hear MLK, along with Bono’s dedication of it to Aung San Suu Kyi, as a “peaceful revolutionary,” followed by Walk On, written expressly for her. As the last song of the main set, it was sweet, but not yet euphoric. The band saved that for the first encore.

It began with a charming video introduction by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on the meaning of the One campaign as a prelude to the song, One. That song may never grow stale ... it's as urgent as the day it arrived to illuminate the band themselves after weeks of discord in 1990. Bono closed out the song with a naked prayer, "Hear us coming, Lord, hear us call!..." The music soars around his voice, the hands of the audience surrounding him are raised in a sea of affirmation. The song crashes to a decisive finish, and as the ovation subsides Bono begins an unaccompanied, ragged but sweet proclamation: "Amazing grace... How sweet the sound that saved a wretch ... like me." Unexpectedly – at least to me – the audience joins him, singing along with the entire verse.
Stand By Me, I expect them to know. Amazing Grace? – anything after the first line? Wow. I am proud of my compatriots for finding those words, and daring to sing them aloud together. Finally, the Big Finish is the incomparable Where the Streets Have No Name. “I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside.”

I folded to my knees...

In hindsight I will realize that virtually all of these songs have been about the battle to know oneself.

With the sole exception of the sweet In a Little While, dedicated to the families of touring rock stars and roadies, this concert contains no simple love songs. (And With or Without You is anything but simple, especially this year.) Instead, all of these songs express the soul’s hunger for clarity, for release, for union with the Source or the Destination, or both -- being stuck, seeking some light, getting lost, being found. Certainly this is a regular theme in U2’s music, but this particular setlist is built, not around political calls to arms, but almost entirely around this inner longing to be truly known. We want to know our place in the world, we struggle to belong, to be loved.

U2 has long understood the political implications of spiritual wounds, and the media’s emphasis therefore has been on their politics… because God knows that’s easier than spirituality. But on this tour it seems the band has chosen to focus on the spiritual work required to change the world – consistent with the tone of No Line on the Horizon.
The coda at the end of the show, the shadowy suit of lights, mimes our hidden story of fatigue, futility, and emptiness. Maybe it also says something more oblique about U2’s life as rock stars – certainly critique of the Pop Life is not new to their work. I don’t know.
But either way, say goodbye to the suit of lights. On your knees, boy.

Bono's performance of their final song, on this night at least, is as guileless and exposed as that first take they captured on the album. This is not Bono the cheerleader. This is a man in confession, as earnest as I've ever seen him:
my body's now a begging bowl,
begging to get back to my heart ... to the rhythm of my soul

Moment of Surrender is unequivocally about being broken … and it is unequivocally about being free. This is the paradox of faith, of spiritual surrender. I cannot imagine a more un-rock’n’roll note on which to end the biggest rock show ever mounted. It is so U2. It’s why I love them.

All the media can talk about is this show’s size, because of course they don’t know what the hell to say about surrender. But U2 made very deliberate choices with these songs. They sent off their audience – young, old, lifers, newbies, rockers, atheists, believers – with the message that ultimately, it isn’t about flash, sound, fury, stardom… On the contrary, their farewell each night was a kind of abdication, a step to the side. That second encore seems to say, “It isn’t about us. We are not at the centre of this. We are not the point of this.” The point of it … is the moment of surrender. That is their gift to us, a broken prayer that is an invitation to freedom ... wrapped up in ambiguity and shadow and a chorus of joy.

And when I go there, I go there with you. It’s all I can do.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

U2: ALIVE AT 33 (part I)

U2 doesn’t go out on the road to trot out the hits and keep the fans interested. After 33 years together, they mount shows the same way they make albums: with warriors’ determination to win the battle against alienation and apathy. To make a work of art that is worthy of the time and carbon footprint it asks of us.
And make no mistake: art is indeed worth our investment of time and resources. God knows we ought to take our pulse and our blood pressure every so often to see how we’re doing … that’s what art must do. It broadcasts our collective pulse and blood pressure, paints pictures of our pain and our victories. So that we know they’re there. U2’s medium is performance art, from their earliest days as misfit kids in Dublin. Street theatre and high-concept multimedia are as much a part of their repertoire as Adam’s bass and Larry’s drums.

So the one thing they have never done in their guise as rock stars is go through the motions. Even when they stumble (yeah, that giant lemon: WHAT were they thinking??), it is in the attempt to shock us awake, to make us see something as we’ve not seen it before. But not merely for art’s sake – no.
To see something fresh, to make a new connection, that’s to wake up! to see things as they are. But first you must be disoriented, must lose the relations of things … before you can suddenly see new interrelationships where you saw none before. Creative people know this sensation well – they can’t always live there, but they are comfortable passing through it because they know it brings them closer to the Real. It breaks through a layer or two of the illusion of isolation and separateness. As the pulse of Life throbs in all things, sometimes that pulse becomes visible to us. Sometimes by grace, sometimes by spiritual discipline… sometimes in art.

Here’s what I’ve learned after witnessing U2360: going to see U2 in concert, at this stage in my life and in theirs, is a risky venture. It’s a leap of faith. Because they give so much, and they ask so much – that is, I know they’re taking me to a deep place, where they will ask me to feel. If they succeed in going deep enough, and if they ask the right questions that touch the right nerves, I know I will feel… very deeply. Tonight, 24 hours after we departed each other’s company, my heart hurts. I ache.
I threw myself into a sea of sound.
Lights go down
It's dark, the jungle is --
Your head can't rule your heart
A feeling's so much stronger than a thought

To begin with, the face of this ocean of sound is Bono. His mastery as he matures is something to behold. He is older, sure, but more than that, each phase of life that he himself enters seems to contribute something to his performing gifts. In 2005 he was less chatty than in 2001; while in 2009 there is a truer stillness within him as he moves around the stage, as he pulls the voice up and out of him. Rev. Beth [see U2Sermons at right and the book Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue] made the observation some years ago that where once Bono the front man took on a prophetic persona, he now strikes a more priestly tone – these are biblical terms, having to do with the manner of exhortation rather than any personal moral attributes. He’s less likely now to climb a scaffolding and wave a flag, and more adept at persuading 50 000 people to lift their voices in praise. He shepherds the crowd, even as he hurls his vulnerability into their arms in complete trust. Dare I say … his ego (about which he’s always been completely candid) is less visible while his strength is moreso.

My dear friend and concert companion (and more casual U2 follower) put it beautifully in her morning-after email: I just love that feeling Bono gives me of being in the presence of greatness. Or more like Greatness, actually. The larger than life-ness that he's got while he's just this little guy walking around that huge contraption, he just ... doesn't look little. Like there's SO MUCH SOMETHING I DON'T EVEN KNOW in that one body, that it's like he's all crowding up in my business even from as far away as he was…

So much something. That's probably always been true of him, it's just that now the "something" is a little harder to name -- Bono's not trying so hard to put the words in our mouths. He's much better now at letting the songs, and the animating spirit of the songs, speak through him.

Which is why I was first dismissive and then perplexed when I read several fan reviews of different 360 shows that mentioned specifically Bono's performance of With or Without You. They reported that he was "bored with it," "tired of it, like he just doesn't care anymore after singing it so much..." Well, accuse the man of a lot of things, but never of forcing himself to sing something every night that he no longer likes or feels inside! With a catalogue like theirs? With the missionary zeal that they bring to building their concerts? It just didn't make sense. So let me begin my reflections on last night's concert at the end of it -- With or Without You is the second-to-last song in the set.
By now, most fans will also have seen it whether they attended shows or not, since the band so generously put up the entire LA concert on youtube. I avoided the live stream of that show, knowing my own show was coming up just 2 days later.

Now I know what those fan reviewers were referring to, and I forgive those who so completely misunderstood the point of that performance -- because they moved me to take a closer look at the entire setlist and find something there more deliberate than I otherwise might have appreciated.
My head is catching up with my heart...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nothing to lose but our chains

In my reading for homework the other day, an author reflected on the early Christian communities (under Rome) in terms of class, and their class struggle. I found this refreshing in scholarly writing, about theology or anything else, and said as much with a wink to my classmates. Alas, the professor informed us that the author, a theologian, is in fact a Marxist and perhaps his terminology is not the most helpful.

alas, say I ... can't somebody raise the notion of social class, if not struggle, without defaulting to a Marxist position? With tongue only partly in cheek, I make public displays of sympathy with Marx (if not with Marxists) because the recognition of class structure in these post-modern times is usually illuminating. Certainly the notion of class has been discredited and mostly dispensed with, at least in conventional wisdom, because (1) this [pick your geo-political identifier] is a democracy and the people choose their government and (2) the free market is free to everybody, right? Unfortunately, that's the convention among the wage-earners and consumers who do not make capitalism's major decisions. The view from the elites of our time is rather that there is a clear gap between those decision-makers and the decision-followers. And hopefully the decision-followers will forget all about the the shell-games that were exposed in last year's economic meltdown.

Personally, I identify with the working class, and I know lots of workers who would resent any such label. However, I don't use it to describe my relative value in the world, since all of us are contributors to what we call society. I do use it to reflect my location among all the groups it takes to form a society. I am not lower-class; but I am a worker, who implements the decisions of the decision-makers in my industry. The decision-makers are more like theorists; the workers move the widgets, and we all get to see if the widgets do what the theorists planned for them to do. In this world, there are also people who teach; people who nurture; people who are mirrors (artists). Society moves and grows and hums along with all of these living, acting parts. I have no problem naming them "classes," even though it's kind of a loaded word.
But naming them is preferable to pretending they don't exist, pretending that each of us has individual "autonomy" as promised by the Enlightenment while none of us are taught to practise collective agency. If we do not individually recognize and claim the part we play in maintaining society (which ought now to be conceived as global), we can never really experience our own autonomy; that is, we will not connect to decision-making about the larger forces in our daily life. My point is, the group we belong to is one of those larger forces.
The corporate agenda is to have us believe that we are "free to choose" ... what to buy. If we have money. Last year's economic meltdown ought to be an object lesson for all of us consumers: for a moment the emperor stood naked, and all those financiers were called to account for putting profit above honest participation in society. (I don't know if the consuming class learned from that lesson yet, though.)
True democracy, true self-determination, is political agency. It is participation in the shaping of society: the conditions under which we go to work, secure shelter and food, celebrate our milestones and even recognize our significant relationships. Each class (and each of us probably belongs to more than one) has valuable and unique input into the shapechanging of society. People who labour, that is, carry out others' ideas, need to contribute their own innovations drawn from their experience, if an overall enterprise is to function optimally. The working class has something necessary to the entrepreneurial class ... for increasing profit, sure, but more holistically for making the enterprise a vital contributor to the health of our society. The entrepreneurial class does have something necessary to the working class, or to the non-waged working class, or to the class of elders who've left the daily grind of wage-working behind: in a capitalist economy, entrepreneurs activate the machinery of cash flow. This does not make the entrepreneurial class any more valuable than the rest. Government regulates behaviour, divvies up wealth, supports those outside the wage-working world.
-- wait a minute -- "outside the wage-working world??" Well, who says the government should support anybody who isn't earning their own keep? (you know where this is going.)

Because we all need reminding that we -- the collective, national, income-reporting variants of "we" -- value more than the creation of profit. We value people who are too old to work any longer; who are unwell; who are physically different from the norm and who therefore participate in our world in different ways; people who are too young or still uneducated; people who are just people. We want to take care of everybody: that's why we have a tax system, a federal government, a provincial government. Our structures are where WE put them, so that the mighty wouldn't exploit the weak, so that the Industrial Age wouldn't eat its children; so that more and more of us might participate in the vast web of relationships on this planet. Some through wage-work, some completely outside of it. It takes many classes of people to make the world go 'round. 6 billion individuals on the planet can never know their value and earth-moving strength, but millions of groups of them can build the world we want... the world we need.