U2’s big — stadiums-only big — tour opens in Barcelona tomorrow night. The show doesn’t land here in Our Nation’s Capital for three months yet, but I’m excited by the photos and video I’ve seen of the much-ballyhooed in-the-round stage that everyone is calling The Claw. I’m also heartened by the rehearsal setlists I haven’t been able to stop myself from previewing. U2’s last all-stadium trek, the 1997-8 PopMart Tour, was famously a trainwreck at first that grew gradually into a powerful, cohesive, memorable show. But it was a low point for the band in terms of surprise. Their focus was clearly on making the production as mindblowing a multimedia spectacle as possible rather than making each performance thereof unique.
U2’s two prior 21st century roadshows did a pretty good job of shaking things up for the repeat attendees upon which aging rock Gods rely, and of resurrecting old album tracks to spice the stew of Greatest Hits. When the imminent, dumbly named U2 360 Tour was announced last spring, I fretted that booking only the biggest rooms and thus playing fewer dates this time would encourage the band to stick to the big songs they’ve already played into the ground. It’ll be hard enough for them to sell the new tunes from No Line on the Horizon, right?
Well. Today’s final dress rehearsal included “The Unforgettable Fire” and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” two songs I figured it was pretty unlikely U2 would ever play again. And I know they’ve rehearsed “Drowning Man,” a great, ambient cut from 1983’s War (before they hooked up with Brian Eno, it’s worth pointing out) that they’ve never previously played in concert.
So far, so good.
U2 have a mixed record when it comes to blending their gift for the grand gesture with their love of spectacle. Their 1992-3 ZOO TV Tour had some great moments in this category: Its U.S. stadium leg coincided with the final weeks of the 1992 presidential race, and Bono phoned the soon-to-be-former President George H.W. Bush from the stage each night, reaching only a bemused series of White House operators.
A year later, the exiled Booker Prize-winning novelist Salman Rushdie appeared on stage with U2 at Wembley Stadium while the fatwah against him issued by that Ayatollah Khomeini remained in force. That happened around the same time the band interrupted several of its stadium gigs to show its audience live video messages by people trapped in Sarajevo during the siege. As you might imagine, this managed to bum 70,000 people the fuck out while failing utterly to stop the genocide.
Bono’s campaignery has become more annoying but more effective during the past decade. I met him, briefly, at the start of his Washington-insider phase, here in DC at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Sept. 1999. By the 2005 Vertigo Tour, it was no longer news when Bono came to Washington. He made a nightly appeal before singing “ONE” to persuade the crowd to join his ONE Campaign. The first night the tour played DC, he rambled on so long that Larry Mullen, Jr. put down his drumsticks and folded his arms.
The new roadshow will surely bring abundant opportunities for the soapboxing that has arguably been Bono’s primary profession for the last ten years. But putting a mask of Burmese Prime Minister-elect Aung San Suu Kyi on their site for fans to download, cut out, affix string to, and wear while the band plays “Walk On” — their song for the Prime Minister, who has been under house arrest since her election in 1990 — in concert at a football stadium near you?
Sorry. That’s just weird, Man.