Friday, September 25, 2009

U2 - 360° Tour / part 2 [concert review]

* September 16th, Rogers Centre, Toronto
Awesome. That's the best word I can come up with to describe the show that U2 puts on. They continue to raise the bar for stadium concert spectacles, while maintaining an emphasis on not living merely off their rich past. The band opened their show at the Rogers Centre with four tracks from their latest album, No Line On the Horizon - that takes balls. In all, seven tracks from the newest release were played, with nearly all of them connecting solidly with the sold-out crowd of 58,000. Interestingly, the one that seemed to have the least impact was "Breathe", which opened the show. No worries, was virtually all uphill from there.
No Line On The Horizon's title track was next and the response of the crowd definitely picked up, energized by the quicker tempo driving one of the best songs from the album. "Get On Your Boots" followed and then came "Magnificent", with lead singer Bono engaging the crowd in a singalong. "Beautiful Day" marked the first older song in the setlist and Bono ended it with a snippet of Elvis Costello's "Alison" (he mentioned that Costello was in the audience). Somewhere during all of this (I believe it was during "Get On Your Boots"), Bono ventured out from the main stage to the outer stage ramp and eventually made his way to directly in front of the spot my brother Jay and I had in the first row in front of that outer stage. Here's a photo, taken during Snow Patrol's set:
Click to enlarge
Jay and I are right where the yellow arrow is and the two arched things on either side of the main stage (in the picture they're black because they're covered with a tarp) are the bridges the band used to come out and visit us. Watching this whole production in action was most impressive. The bridges were attached to a track on the inner part of the outer stage and could swing right around to the very middle front of the outside stage. The cameras shooting the show for the video screen were on similar tracks on the outside part of the outer stage, allowing the camera men easy access to move around. The above picture doesn't do the whole thing justice. When the full stage was in action it was breathtaking, especially accompanied by the light show coming from the CN Tower. The video screen above the stage was jaw dropping. It was cylindrical shaped, pieced together in hexagonal segments. Later in the show the segments break apart and the whole thing expands (while still showing images), dropping down to just a shade above the band's head as well as skyward to the intersecting top of "the claw", as the stage design has been nicknamed..."spaceship" is another word being used to describe it. The design was inspired by the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport.
Before the show, a roadie had taped some lyrics onto the stage right in front of us and I was able to read something about "Yonge Street" and "TTC". At the end of "Beautiful Day" Bono stood over the lyric sheet and inserted some of the lines from it into the song's ending. Before this concert I'd seen U2 seven times, the last three from the front row (close enough that I've shaken 3/4 of the band's hands on different occasions). Being mere feet from the people entertaining you never gets old, especially when it's the biggest band in the world. What's that, you say? The Rolling Stones are the biggest band in the world? I beg to differ. Sure, they sell out stadiums worldwide and hell, they're the Stones, with such a great history, but creatively they peaked almost 20 years ago. They haven't made a truly great album in decades now and any new release from them sells modestly in comparison to U2. U2 have made three brilliant albums in a row now over the last nine years and continue to put on the best live show on the planet. To me, it's no argument, but I digress...
Next was one of the high points of the show, with "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", which Bono let the audience sing alone for the first couple of verses. A segue into "Stand By Me" worked beautifully, resulting in one of three moments during the show which gave me goosebumps (and not from the cool temperature). The momentum slowed considerably with the snail-like pace of "Your Blue Room", a semi-obscure track from the band's 1995 side project titled Passengers that they'd only played live once before, a couple of days earlier in Chicago. Paired with some pre-taped video footage of an astronaut from the International Space Station, the song (and its overly artsy pretense) appeared to get lost within the circus-like surroundings. Not so for a great acoustic version of "Stay", with guitarist The Edge adding spot-on accompanying vocals.
Further highlights included a faithful version of the moody "The Unforgettable Fire", pulled out of mothballs for this tour. "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight", the song from those ubiquitous "Blackberry Loves U2" ads, got a dramatic makeover as the band have opted to perform the dance remix version live. It sounds like a bad idea in theory, but it worked spectacularly, proving to be probably the most fun moment during the show. The entire band made their way around the whole stage, with even drummer Larry Mullen Jr. strapping on a conga to play along with the electronic backbeat. The tail end of the show found Bono assuming his role as music's socially conscious champion for human rights, specifically asking the audience to consider the plight of Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi before dedicating a powerful version of "Walk On" to her. The song ended with a stream of fans walking out on the outer stage and holding up masks with her face in front of theirs as a gesture of solidarity. The second last song before the encore was "One", introduced by a video message from Bishop Desmond Tutu. Cue goose bump moment number two.
"Where The Streets Have No Name" ended the main set and "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" from Achtung Baby kicked off the encore. This song's performance floored me, and not just musically. Visually, other than the crazy expanding video screen, it was the highlight of the show. Bono walks out wearing a jacket with lights that looked like mini laser beams running along the sleeves and front, singing the song using a microphone centred in a lit-up ring that hung from a cable in the ceiling. The jacket lights shot out in a bizarre crisscross of beams that, along with atmospheric purple lighting and the dry ice smoke, made for a stunning visual presentation (and goose bump moment #3). At times, Bono would actually swing out over the audience while hanging onto the mic, continuing to sing. Here's a picture of him before he got airborne:
Click to enlarge
"With Or Without You" played it's faithful role as another audience favourite near the end of the show, here being the penultimate song of the night. "Moment Of Surrender" closed the performance, another new track, and while it lacks the familiarity and comfort of its predecessor it made for a fitting closer, with more full-on audience participation.
Opening act Snow Patrol did, shall we say, a serviceable job. I'm not much of a fan of the group (also from Ireland) and their set, while peppered with more than a few songs that had me thinking "Oh yeah...I forgot this song was done by them", was a decent placeholder until the big boys took the stage. There's always been something way too safe and bland about the band for my taste and their set didn't help to change my opinion.
The 360˚ Tour is obviously another massive road endeavour for U2 and the financial and creative risks appear to have been worth it. The band's previous two tours were scaled down affairs, limited to arenas in North America, although still giving full value for the money in terms of the stage show. Both were a resounding success, a welcome change from the uneven Popmart stadium tour from 1997-98. Looking back, I can't believe both my brother and I enjoyed the Toronto Popmart show at the then-Skydome so little that we both thought of leaving it early. I do recall having had a very hard time connecting with the album they were supporting, though (Pop), which didn't help matters. No complaints this time around, however...Bono was in fine voice, the band sounded tight and even the sound was excellent, a rarity at the dome. The roof was open for only the second time in the stadium's 20 year history (the other was a Bruce Springsteen show in 2003 I also attended) and the acoustics certainly benefitted.
Rating: 10/10
Below is a YouTube video of footage shot from a condo overlooking the Rogers Centre on September 17th, U2's second Toronto show. The sound is incredibly good, considering how far away the person shooting it is, not to mention the impressive view. Apparently Bono asked the eavesdroppers in the condos to turn their lights on and off at one point during the show.