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.


  1. Amazing review-you put into words almost everything I felt about the shows that I saw! (Norman and Boston.) Thank you.

  2. I wasn't there...and probably won't be on this tour unless they come to Pennsylvania. But you took me there. "Moment of Surrender" is indeed about being broken OPEN, and it's beautiful to read this stunning and brave review, and "go there with you." Bless them for building the show around this gorgeous paradox, and bless you for perceiving and understanding. And most of all, for being willing to be taken there and knowing you may not necessarily arrive all in one piece. That's always the challenge -- whether we're going to see U2 or we're walking the Path, yes? U2 knows that somehow, those bloody knees scrape your soul more open to Love. And much more than ever, I know it, too.

  3. Just want to thank you for your blog - I've been absorbing it since I found it.

  4. I saw them in Chicago on opening night. Nice post.