Halfway though U2’s tour-ending show at Moncton’s Magnetic Hill, Bono introduced himself and his bandmates as “a work in progress.”
He was probably speaking to their commitment to evolution, their unwillingness to stand still, artistically, for very long. But he could well have been speaking about the U2 360° tour itself.
With 110 shows spanning two full years, generating $736 million in revenue from 7.2 million attendees—both figures the highest ever for a single tour—the 360° tour should have ended as a well-oiled machine, a perfectly-honed testament to the cultural and commercial dominance of the world’s biggest rock band. And in some respects, particularly its spectacular multimedia elements, it absolutely is. But musically, the tour has been a bit of a moving target, even through its final dates.
It began, ostensibly, as an outing designed to showcase U2’s No Line on the Horizon album. But when that record proved dead-on-arrival, with no hit single and only “Moment of Surrender” really making a mark with fans, the setlist dropped many of the tracks; by tour’s end, only three remained in each show. On the tour’s third and fourth leg, a bunch of new songs were debuted, suggesting that the quick follow-up record the band kept talking about (but never delivered) might be right around the corner; by the final legs, no new material was being played at all.
Most recently, the show’s setlist has been dominated by Achtung Baby, the band’s 1991 classic that celebrates its twentieth anniversary this fall. The band opened the Moncton show (as they did many shows in the past month) with four tracks from the record—“Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “The Fly,” “Mysterious Ways” and “Until The End of the World”—and brought out “One” as part of the first encore. What’s more, they also played several other tracks from the bands oft-derided experimental 1990s, including “Miss Sarajevo,” “Zooropa” and “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.” And before performing “Stay (Faraway, So Close),” Bono spoke nostalgically about that era, recording in Berlin, and how it felt like everything around them was changing and exciting.
The sentiment could simply have been a reflection of the material’s quality; after all, Achtung is arguably the band’s greatest artistic and cultural accomplishment, and Zooropa has aged remarkably well considering its reception at the time. But I can’t help but feel that the evolution of the 360° tour, ending with a celebration of Achtung in Moncton, instead reflects the confused, conflicted place that the world’s biggest rock band finds itself at as its members conclude their third decade together.
Understanding U2 in the 2000s starts—and, to some extent ends—with All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
The band’s members have always been a bit uncomfortable with their past; there’s a reason why Edge famously described Achtung as “the sound of four men cutting down The Joshua Tree.” Which makes All That You Can’t Leave Behind a bit of an oddity in their catalogue to that point: the most “U2” that U2 had ever been, it’s an album completely at peace with the band’s legacy (hence, the title) and one that shamelessly cops the earnest anthemicism of its late-eighties heyday. No wonder that it was understood as a course-correction for the “weird” nineties, and little surprise that it became the band’s biggest hit in a decade.
So you have a band that spent 10 years priding itself on being deconstructionist, challenging and boundary-pushing, stylistically if not always musically…and it returns to cultural relevancy by making an album that’s none of those things.
I’m sure that most commercially-successful bands face a bit of a struggle between their artistic impulses and the quest for audience reception, but it gets worse when they start to reach their “legacy” years. We live in a nostalgia-dominated culture, after all, one where aging music fans (and often younger ones too) are more interested in reconnecting with something reliably entertaining from the past than discovering something wholly new. There’s a reason why acts like AC/DC and the Rolling Stones will put out a new album, then only play one or two new songs in concert: they know on which side of the relevancy scale their bread is buttered.
I’d wager that U2’s members feel that tension right now in their career; their last two albums sure show it. Both How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (which I liked) and No Line on the Horizon (which I didn’t) feel gun shy, flirting with experimentalism only to, ultimately, stick with their dependable pop balladry. More troubling, neither element feels like it’s coming from a place of fresh enthusiasm; even at their best, both albums feel like echos of the band’s glory days rather than a genuinely exciting new phase of the band’s work in and of itself.
In some ways, the 360° tour brings these tensions to a head. It’s the band’s first mega-arena tour since the nineties’ era of excess, an attempt to bridge those post-modern showcases with the band’s more political mindset and more earnest hits from this most recent decade. Just as importantly (as I mentioned earlier), the tour’s associated album was a bit of a bust, meaning that the band has had to rework the set on a regular basis. And with three decades of hits under their belt now, the risk of U2 becoming a museum piece looms larger than ever.
So just what is the state of U2 as its biggest tour ever reaches the finish line?
If nothing else, it’s one hell of a show.
Actually, let me go further: U2’s tour-ending show in Moncton easily ranks as one of the my favourite concert experiences in recent years.
Part of it is circumstance. Though I didn’t arrive on-site super early (when doors opened, but didn’t make it to the concert site until almost an hour later), there was still room left for general admission ticketholders like me to get a spot in the stage’s inner circle. While the 360° tour is designed to deliver a spectacular mediated experience to everyone in attendance, there’s something I cherish in being spitting-distance from a band, surrounded by its keenest and most eager fans. The energy was as infectious as the view was amazing.
Part of it is the material. I won’t make apologies for the spottiness of the band’s most recent output, or Bono’s self-aggrandizing, but there’s a strain of anti-U2 revisionism these days challenging the value of even their 80s heyday, and that’s just ridiculous. U2‘s back catalogue has a ridiculous amount stunners to choose from – whether something fun (“Vertigo,” “Out of Control,” “Hold Me, Kiss Me…”) or compelling (“Zooropa”) or downright essential (“One,” “With Or Without You”). For me, it was a thrill to finally have a chance to jump with abandon to songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
Part of it is the multimedia, though not as much as you might think. Though the 360° stage is massive, and has some very cool features—the walking bridges, the spitting LCD screens—the show’s actually more dependent on the band’s performance than you might think.
And that’s the final part: that Bono, The Edge, Adam and Larry are seasoned experts at delivering the sort of energetic, enthusiastic and generous performances that are needed to pull off a show at this scale. Not only is the playing note perfect, but the extras make it all worthwhile: the little song tidbits (most notably, “Springhill Mining Disaster”), the teasing (Bono heckling Edge on how he thought adults drank alcohol because they liked the taste), and the crowd gesturing (reading signs, shaking hands, and always acknowledging the scope and size of their audience).
The 360° show was such a complete, total experience that I have no doubt that U2 could continue to tour for years solely on the strength of their back catalogue in such a fashion, and not only make a pretty penny doing so, but probably leave audiences satisfied the entire time.
That’s one direction the band could go. But for some reason, I have this sneaking suspicion that they’re going to go the other: that after ten years regaining credibility with a good deal of the fanbase while dealing with an artistic tension within itself, U2 are ready to spend some of that capital and surprise us again. Maybe there’s something to be read into the fact that the band brought 360° to a close with “40,” played for the first time on the tour. Perhaps they’re ready to take its refrain to heart: “I will sing a new song / How long to sing this song?”
More photos, setlist and quick thoughts on Arcade Fire and Carney after the break…
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Not much to say about Arcade Fire’s opening set that I didn’t say about their Thursday show at Alderney Landing: it was every bit as accomplished (and, though five songs shorter, followed a near-identical setlist order), and it was great to see some U2 fans inside the stage’s circle won over by the band’s enthusiastic performance. As for Carney, who are the pit band for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and fronted by the Broadway show’s lead actor Reeve Carney, they’re kind of a pastiche of a bunch of different rock stereotypes (glam, blues, arena rock) that never really come together. Also: it takes balls to cover Queen (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) and the Beatles (“I Want You”) but that doesn’t mean it’s smart.
Also: you can tell in the AF/Carney photos just how ominous the clouds were. It had poured all day but, miraculously, it stopped right before the bands were about to start. The sun even poked through during Carney’s set, and by the time U2 wrapped, the night sky was clear and star-filled – at least, once you got far enough away from U2’s massive claw stage to see them.
Arcade Fire setlist:
Ready to Start
Keep the Car Running
No Cars Go
Month of May
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
We Used to Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
Even Better Than the Real Thing
Until the End of the World
I Will Follow
Get On Your Boots
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Stay (Faraway, So Close)
Pride (In the Name of Love)
City of Blinding Lights
I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Where the Streets Have No Name
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me
With or Without You
Moment of Surrender
Out of Control