Monday, September 14, 2009
All that you can't leave behind
Before Saturday night in Chicago, it had been four years since I saw U2. But it had been eight years since I saw U2 from anywhere besides the floor, as close to the stage as possible. This time around, Alison and I opted for seats instead of GA. I looked forward to the show, but wasn't sure if I'd truly be able to get into it. I never see bands in stadiums. I'm never 90 yards away from the performers. My first U2 show in 1997 was at Soldier Field, in seats very similar to those we had Saturday. I had a wonderful time that night, but it was one of my first concerts ever. I'm familiar with U2's ability to charm a huge crowd, but was skeptical of my own susceptibility in this environment. Wasn't I a seasoned concert veteran? Used to the front of intimate venues? Smaller, more down-to-earth bands? My era of rabid U2 fandom years behind me?
Those things are all true. They also don't matter. I had forgotten that a U2 show is a wholly different entity. The last shows I saw were Neil Finn and Jon Brion from the front of a 280-seat theater. Thinking I wouldn't appreciate Saturday night at Soldier Field in comparison, as it turns out, made as much sense as assuming I wouldn't enjoy chocolate ice cream because garlic naan is so great. One has nothing to do with the other.
I hadn't read much about the setlists for the European leg of the U2 360 tour, or about the stage setup. In person, the sheer size, scale, and spectacle were amazing. The screens were unlike anything I'd ever seen, and the tour makes stunning use of lights and visual effects. It all enhanced the show rather than distracting the audience, which can be a difficult line to tread. Of course, simply being present in a stadium with tens of thousands of fans is amazing in itself. Bono doesn't really play to the front of the crowd - I know this from being there myself. Bono plays to the camera; to the back corners of the 400 section. Bono plays to the stadium.
Saturday's setlist was heavy on the new album, as it should be. There were definitely songs I'd have rather heard, but this isn't a Greatest Hits tour. I could have done without the most unfortunate lyrics of my least favorite song scrolling along the screen for a singalong, but you can't win them all. "Breathe" as an opener was great, and Larry coming out by himself to start was a nice touch. The acoustic "Stuck in a Moment" was excellent with just Bono and Edge on stage, somehow working perfectly in a huge space that no longer seemed quite so big. I was in turn confused, surprised, amused and delighted when Bono wove some lines from Wilco's "Far Far Away" into the intro to "Beautiful Day." Also surprising was "The Unforgettable Fire." I'd never seen it played, and judging from the people around me, neither had many younger members of the crowd. Nor had they ever heard the song before, at all. Of course, Bono did choose to skip over a decent portion of the lyrics. I'll chalk that up to "new arrangement," but the song was still a welcome inclusion.
My highlight of the show came in the encore. Bono took the stage in a suit dotted with red lights, shining out into the stadium. A swinging microphone, also covered in lights, lowered to meet him. "Sometimes I feel like I don't know, sometimes I feel like checking out..." After all this time, "Ultra Violet." One of my favorite songs on Achtung Baby, which means one of my favorite songs in the world. I can't say it was a song I'd been hoping to hear, because the idea never occurred to me. But if I'd thought of it, I would have been hoping. It was perfect.
The show made me realize that my experience of a U2 concert isn't really about U2. It's mostly about me. Maybe that's true of anybody's experience of anything, if you want to get philosophical. I have so many memories wrapped up in these songs, this scene, this band. They're all the more powerful for the long gaps between tours, and the fact that I rarely listen to the albums these days. For two hours, the stadium is a time machine. Bono sings "Stand By Me" at Soldier Field in 2009 and I'm at Soldier Field in 1997, Lindsey and Michelle by my side, as he sings the same lines. "The Unforgettable Fire" begins and I'm on a road trip with my parents, headphones on in the back seat, listening to that album over and over/watching the video with Gina, in college, laughing as the wheels fly and colors spin. The verses of "One" take me to Germany, visiting Michelle, gazing at the remains of the Berlin Wall. The band plays "Ultra Violet" and I'm in high school again, brimming with teenage resentment and perfect-student stress, screaming "I wanna get it wrong" at the top of my lungs in my car/in my bedroom/in a stadium with 60,000 people.
Looking back on U2's Vertigo tour, I was too recently removed from my U2 super-fandom to have much perspective. I think it was too soon after the preceding Elevation tour - which completely changed the way I thought about live music - to fully separate the two. I enjoyed the shows, but things were different than they had been. I felt the high school freshman's smugness about how I'd moved on. This time, it's been long enough. Seeing U2 again felt like going home. Like visiting the place where I grew up after having been away for a long time. Maybe I don't want to live there anymore, but everything is right where I left it. I can go back. I can stay awhile.