I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns,
were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
― William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience
I took the money
I spiked your drink
You miss too much these days if you stop to think
You lead me on with those innocent eyes
You know I love the element of surprise
In the garden I was playing the tart
I kissed your lips and broke your heart
You… You were acting like it was
The end of the world
In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows, they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
Waves of regret and waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You… You said you’d wait
Until the end of the world
— U2, Until the End of the World
Last Friday and Saturday night, the city of Montreal was rocked by some of its favorite adopted sons, the magnificent U2. As a diehard fan, this weekend was the equivalent of a Christmas that only comes around every four or five years—a leap Christmas, if you will—so I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts and feelings about the shows (beyond, you know, WHHHHHOOOOO!!!!).
A bit of history first: I saw my first U2 show over 20 years ago, on the first leg of their iconic Zoo TV tour, and have seen the band every time they’ve played here since. That’s around 12-13 times by now, and if I had my druthers it would be ten times that. The closest I’ve ever felt to a religious experience was seeing them a month after September 11th, 2001, the crowd like an open wound and their music the only balm that could soothe us. Though I do love the elegiac side of them, pump-your-fist anthems and ear-worm sing-alongs, what first drew me was the post-Bowie swagger and theatricality of Achtung Baby, an album born and raised in one of my favorite cities in the world, Berlin. For a communication studies student, the multi-media malaise and pop-as-cultural-revolution aesthetic of Zoo TV spoke to every philosophy I was struggling to form, every artistic ideal I was honing at school. I’ve always loved U2 most at their darkest: doubting, critiquing, mourning. They’ve always understood that it’s only after hitting the bottom that you can truly soar.
I’m the first to admit that the output of 21st century U2 has challenged some of us who love them for their blue period, but their newer albums have always had just enough to hook me in, and certainly their live shows make up for any deep-track mediocrity. Some heady rock ‘n’ roll voodoo happens whenever they take the stage, Bono’s earnestness and bombast, powered by one of the tightest units this side of the Navy SEALs, transcending the bounds of time and space. At their best shows, like the one last Saturday night, the crowd’s thundering applause, ecstatic yawps, and wilding cries swirl into a hurricane of euphoria. At its epicenter is, of course, the band, a zenith of cool amidst the narrowing gyre.
Prior to this weekend, this particular album-tour-hiatus, rinse-repeat cycle had left me a bit embittered. After the high of their last album, No Line on the Horizon, my favorite since Zooropa, their latest, Songs of Innocence, left me cold. After the first two listens, I put it aside for almost a month, not impressed. I eventually went back for another listen, and like a good deal of the second half of the album—The Troubles and Sleep Like A Baby Tonight are favorites—but I feel the first half is some of their weakest material ever. Every Breaking Wave only worked for me once I heard the acoustic version. Still, I anxiously awaited a tour announcement. A few lesser songs would not ruin their live show.
When the announcement finally came, I was pumped. Two shows in a much smaller venue! The promise of an entirely acoustic performance the first night, then an electric one the second! But buying the tickets proved to be aggravating to the extreme. Loyal fans like me, fans who pay their fan club dues every year for the privilege of getting tickets first and fast, were only permitted to purchase two seats *for the entire tour*. This didn’t just stop them from seeing multiple shows—pretty much forcing them to buy scalped tickets—but groups of friends couldn’t go together. My two closest friends and I have been seeing the band together for years, and this time we weren’t able to. I also know of families who couldn’t sit together or even be guaranteed to go to the same night. This showed a rare disrespect from the band to their most loyal followers, and left a seriously bad taste in my mouth. Not to mention that actually buying the tickets reminded me more of Dante’s circles of hell than Blake’s flawed utopia.
Still, six months later and looking forward to a long weekend of U2 bliss, almost all was forgiven. Sure, it was annoying that the band asked us to be there for 7:30, and then made us wait for an hour. I was also a bit ticked that those two different shows were Frankensteined into one grand spectacle—I have longed for an acoustic set from them for years—but, when the lights went down and the crowd leapt to their feet on Friday night, I was ready to rock and roll.
While it didn’t reach the dystopian heights of the Zoo TV tour or the emotional resonance of the All You Can Leave Behind tour, the Innocence and Experience tour (I refuse to use the stupid official capitalization) finds the band in a curious, playful, if introspective mood. They are still U2, one of the best live bands in the world, and every concert of theirs is worth far more than the price of admission. Musically they are a powerhouse, and Bono’s voice has never sounded better. No other band can mix slithery rock with soul-rending ballads, punky cynicism with messages of social justice. I know I’m in the minority, but I love how Bono combines overt theatricality with honest pleas for goodwill and compassion, musings on the nature of art with “oh, oh, oh, oh” call and response, aka “the most beautiful sound in the world.”
The first section of the show, Innocence, began with a one-two-three punch of rockers, expertly revving the crowd up. Then came a series of songs that traced the journey of the band from their origins on the north side of Dublin (I Will Follow and Cedarwood Road, one of the better songs on the new album) to their beginnings as a band. There was the requisite tribute to Bono’s mother, and to his wife, Ali, who he is still trying to write the perfect song for. Sunday Bloody Sunday was gut-punch spare, with a firebrand Larry Mullins Jr. on the snare drum. Raised by Wolves, another new track that I’m not terribly fond of, didn’t quite come to life live either, but it provided a twisted transition into one of my favorite songs of all time, Until the End of the World, U2’s very own Blakian briar.
Ever the innovators, U2’s two attempts at integrating the latest technology into their live show had widely disparate results. The giant screen that dominated the middle of the auditorium, with an inner catwalk that integrated the band members with its projections, was only visible to 50% of the audience and muted the impact of several songs, most notably Invisible, where it pretty much swallowed them whole. When they started to play it, all four members hidden in the screen, I thought it was a recording. There’s such a thing as interpreting a song’s theme a bit too literally.
The second gambit, inviting an audience member to dance onstage during Mysterious Ways, and then film the band for the song after, simultaneously broadcast on Meerkat, was brilliant. Everyone in the audience, perhaps trying to mask their collective envy of their lucky peers, was raving by the end of this segment. It worked especially well on Saturday, when another audience member was invited to play Edge’s guitar for him during Angel of Harlem. The dude had chops, and the moment was pure magic.
The Experience part of the show was classic U2, playing propulsive hits from different eras, like Pride, When the Street Have No Name, and City of Blinding Lights, and breaking your heart, with the aforementioned Every Breaking Wave and of course With or Without You. The band was smart enough to switch up a few songs on their set list on each night, yielding treasures like Bad, Ordinary Love, and Out of Control. Which perfectly described the crowd by the end of the Saturday show, chanting fervently for a second encore, singing One… as one.
There may have been a few bumps in the road this time, but there is still nothing like the passion and the power of the best band in the world, U2. Rock on, lads.
I’ll leave you with a video of the acoustic performance of Every Breaking Wave on Saturday night. Bono’s voice is exquisite.