I’ve always been a fringe fan of U2. I’ve been aware of them pretty much my whole life; of course I’ve heard all the hits and found each landing somewhere between pretty darn good and generally inoffensive, though I don’t think I’ve ever owned an album. Their songwriting is unquestionably unique and often trend-setting and the group is a prime example of the sum outweighing the parts.
Of course their live shows get a lot of attention. Giant television sets as part of the ZOOTV tour, a stage that rumour tells us could be seen from space, and a convoy of trucks transporting ton after ton of equipment back and forth across the planet on behalf of one of rock music’s most vocal environmentally/planet-conscious bands.
It might have taken a lifetime but on June 12th, 2015 the hype finally got me out to a show.
I was sitting pretty close to centre ice in Montreal’s Bell Centre with the stage at the rink-end to my left. Running up the middle of the floor in front of me was a walkway that extended from the stage to the back of the room, splitting the floor in two. Above the walkway hung a massive screen stretching from the stage to my left all the way to the back of the floor to my right. From my spot perhaps a dozen rows up I had a great view of the monstrous screen.
From the first note it was clear these guys are uber-professional. The sound was so crisp, the band so tight they can take you on a musical ride grooving over a single chord. The crowd was manic and the band delivered. The screen was epic, flooding the visual space with clever montages over the crowd and over the music.
And then the U2 magic began.
After several jaunts up and down the walkway Bono made his way back to the stage where a ramp led up into the big screen. Bono ran up the ramp and entered the screen itself. While the screen continued to project images, in places it became transparent and we could see Bono climb along a runway within the screen. He popped out the other end of the screen at the back of the floor where another ramp had appeared. Soon The Edge and Adam Clayton got in the game and got in the screen as well. There were multiple ramps and rooms in there; sometimes the screen would be completely translucent while at other times the band members would simply disappear behind the images being projected.
It was one of the coolest concert gimmicks I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t overused and was a joy every time.
The band paused for a setbreak and started the second set from within the screen – turns out there was even an entire drum kit set up in there. During the second set Bono got a fan up from the audience and gave him a video camera to film the band close up. The guy had a U2 license plate hanging around his neck; he was so excited his enthusiasm spread through the audience and we were all routing for him as he danced and filmed and danced. The guy completely stole the show and even had Bono reminding him, “Hey, don’t forget to film the singer!”
A highlight for me was Sunday Bloody Sunday with Larry Mullen Jr. joining the rest of the band at the back of the room playing just a snare drum. The screen reminded us about the song’s origins while the stripped-down take on what is possibly their biggest hit gave the song a distinct military feel. Sunday Bloody Sunday is a monolith, and with this arrangement U2 managed to breath new life into a great song like they were squeezing blood from a stone.
And so it is true – U2 is one of the great live acts of the era. Will I go see them again? You bet I will. Will I buy their next album? Not a chance.