Home > adam clayton, bono, chicago, larry mullen jr, no line on the horizon, the edge, U2 > Review – U2 at Soldier Field, Chicago, 09-13-2009

Review – U2 at Soldier Field, Chicago, 09-13-2009

September 15, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Overall Review

U2 are always best when they’re laughing at themselves. While many critics have called them preening, pretentious, and any number of other words that start with the letter P, they’ve reached a point that no one can fault them for not being able to know when they’re taking themselves too seriously. Their current tour, dubbed “U2 360,” has the largest set ever constructed for a rock show. It features an enormous LCD screen that descends from the equally enormous pylon structure (or “The Claw”) and then breaks apart into a web-like lattice that makes the band member appear to be about 40 feet tall. It has a full-circle catwalk attached to the main, center stage by two movable bridges. The center spire of the structure stands yards above the top of Chicago’s Soldier Field, topped with one of two mirror balls on the stage.

The 360 stage, preshow.

Bono, early in Sunday’s show (the second of two nights in Chicago to open the North American leg of the tour), thanked the crowd for allowing them to build “this madness.” He delivered his thanks with a genuine smile, and throughout the night’s set, all four members—including the notoriously stoic drummer, Larry Mullen Jr.—smiled and laughed through a set that included a relatively well-balanced mix of old and new U2 songs. Early U2 were serious and… more serious. Middle-era U2 were ironic, and poking fun at rock and roll in general. Now, after the relatively tame All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb tours (called Elevation and Vertigo, respectively), U2 have finally started doing what they set out to do over a decade ago: they’re finally poking fun at themselves.

Known as much for his showmanship as his outlandish on-stage rants and his raging messiah complex, Bono seemed more human in this show than years previous. It seems that age has finally taught him the sense to know when to tone down his almost stream-of-consciousness stage banter. He’s spending less time trying to fight the crowd that’s singing his songs; rather, he’s shepherding them, as on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” when he simply reminded them where they were going. Sure, on a couple songs Bono’s muse got the best of him and put him at odds with the crowd, especially during “One” and “With or Without You.” But by and large, Sunday’s version of Bono was less of his prancing ’90s alter-ego The Fly, and more of an MC or a DJ, the guy hosting the party.

And the rest of the band, including Mullen, bassist Adam Clayton, and guitarist The Edge, were just happy to see everybody. They were active, jogging from place to place, mugging for the audience and the multiple video cameras stationed around the stage, and generally being the showmen that thirty years of touring has trained them to be.

The monstrosity of the stage did little to divert attention from the band themselves. While they may have been dwarfed by such a technological marvel, it only served as a tool to allow the band to interact with the crowd on a new level (said Bono: “It’s okay to kiss a little Chicago ass, as long as you can kick it.”) For example, Bono pulled a young boy from the crowd to run the circumference of the outer catwalk during “City of Blinding Lights.” Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal for a guy known to pull women out of the crowd to dance with on stage, but the kid came from the middle of the “inner circle” crowd, lifted directly from beside the mobile catwalk.

All this glowing commentary is not without fault, of course. First, the inclusion of “Your Blue Room,” from the Eno/U2 project Passengers was a misfire for the crowd, most of which was probably unaware the song even existed. While the song was well done, and the production superb (including closing narration by a crew member of the International Space Station), it was unannounced, unintroduced, and unexpected. Diehard fans, of course, ate the song up, because it had never been performed live until Sunday night. In the future, though, I would think that some introduction might be necessary for the track, or future crowds will likely have the same tepid reaction to the song.

The band’s political grandstanding also grated against the flow of the show a bit. They dedicated the songs “MLK” and “Walk On” to Burmese politician Aung San Su Kyi, who was elected the leader of her country in the ’90s and has spent nearly every moment of her life since under house arrest. While this wouldn’t normally be a problem for this author—I was fine with their recasting of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as a song for Iranian electoral freedom, but is a song I’ll still single out in a bit—the fact that nearly 100 crowd members march to the stage with masks depecting San Su Kyi’s face seemed a bit heavy-handed. Even for U2.

As for the aforementioned “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” I have the following to say: Bono adding The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” into one of the most unintentionally comical moments of the night. I think few people realize the political slant of “Rock the Casbah” and probably assumed Bono decided to suddenly turn a protest song into something silly. I don’t think that was Bono’s intention, but the irony of both “Rock the Casbah” and it’s inclusion as part of the coda of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was probably lost upon most of the crowd.

Finally, I was a little confused by the show’s clock/time theme. It never really hit me, though I assume it has something to do with a lyric on the new album I haven’t come across yet. Probably “Unknown Caller,” but I’m not sure.

All in all, the show was fantastic, and was probably my favorite large-format show, beating out three Tool shows and a previous U2 show at Minneapolis’s Target Center during the Vertigo tour. A gigantic spaceship-like stage, a top-notch technical production, and a band that is as tight and polished as it’s ever been throughout its career is a winning combination. And even through all that production and professionalism, they’re finally having a bit of a laugh at themselves. An honest laugh.

The stage during 'City of Blinding Lights.'

Song-by-Song (aka, For Fans Only)

“Breathe”
The mix was a bit off, but served as a decent enough opener. It doesn’t have the same power as the iconic “Zoo Station,” “Elevation,” or “Vertigo,” however. So the show started fairly average.

“No Line on the Horizon”
As the screen played animations based on the album’s artwork, the band rumbled on behind this song. Done well enough, but didn’t really do much for me personally.

“Get on Your Boots”
Bono definitely enjoyed playing with the lyrics and rhythm on this one. Adam’s giant fuzz-tone bass drove the song well, and during the song’s “Let me in the sound” breakdown, even Larry Mullen Jr. stood up behind his kit and chanted with the crowd. Well done, and I imagine as the tour progresses, this song will be one of the centerpieces of the set… even as the third song in the list.

“Magnificent”
This song was as soring as I was expecting. The song has one of the most anthematic of U2’s many anthematic choruses. And, as I predicted, the song sounds significantly better live than on the album. It’s probably the most “traditionally U2” song on the new album.

“Beautiful Day”
I’m assuming the intro to this song is a different song, but most of it was gladhanding Chicago. The sequenced build for the song, though, was quite good. As a side note, I was surprised by how little sequencing was actually in the show. Most of the drumming was live, most of the backing vocals were provided by The Edge, Larry Mullen, or the crowd. Most of the sequencing was used for synth pads or completely unworkable things like the remix of “I’ll Go Crazy,” which I’ll get to later. So… thirty years later, as a half electronic band, they’re still essentially four guys working it on stage. That takes some guts. And integrity. (And maybe some prodding from Radiohead.)

“Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
The thing I noticed the most on this song is how much Bono’s voice has improved from the last two tours. It seemed ragged and brittle in years past, and this year seems to has come back into its ’90s mix of pure tone, range, and expressiveness. And listening back to the bootleg of the show (yes, less than 24 hours after the show ended), The Edge’s guitar was nice and shimmery, the crowd’s singing was superb, and the energy was just… nice. Not the explosion that it used to be in years past, but relaxed and pleasant. This was about the point the band and the crowd finally got acquainted.

“Elevation”
Bono made a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory “up and out” reference, and the crowd really ate this song up. The Edge added a bit of country flair to the bridge. Pretty amusing all around.

“Your Blue Room”
As I said earlier, this one misfired. The crowd wasn’t really into it. It was done well, and was quite tasteful, but the crowd just… wasn’t there. Confused, mainly. Also, I don’t know who did the female backing track. My wife claims that The Edge was doing them in falsetto, but I’m pretty sure they were piped in through Digital Performer (the band’s live sequencer.)

“Unknown Caller”
Another of the songs on No Line on the Horizon that I thought would be better live. And I was right. Partially because you could actually hear The Edge’s guitar during the verses. The chorus vocals were a little awkward, but it worked well enough. Crowd participation was pretty good, but not great. Good enough for a new song with an awkward chorus.

“Until the End of the World”
I was sad that there wasn’t a Bono vs. The Edge battle, but the song was more than welcome. I hadn’t been expecting it because I’d read they might have been retiring the song for the time being, so I was a little surprised. I think this song usually does well live, and this time was no exception.

“Stay (Far Away, So Close!)”
I was really surprised by this song. While it’s not my favorite U2 song, it’s a bit of a live rarity, so I enjoyed it.

“Unforgettable Fire”
I honestly thought this was one of the new album’s tracks or a track from All That You Can’t Leave Behind that I’d forgotten about. I totally forgot this song existed. I’m a terrible U2 fan. To be honest, it’s probably because Bono’s voice is fantastically better than it was in 1985. It’s also probably a testament to the fact that U2 still has the same general sound, even twenty years later.

“City of Blinding Lights”
The crowd really got into this one. I’m honestly surprised Bono didn’t throw a “…in the city… of Chicago” in there. I mean, it fits the rhythm and everything. Shame on you, Bono, for missing the obvious suck-up. Though the speech about Barack Obama was pretty sycophantic, so I guess I’ll have to give you some leeway. Also of note, this is the point the show started to go into Bizarre Techno Land. The stage and screen really started to get active and this song lead into…

“Vertigo”
Bono was just about bursting at this point. I think the run during “City” might have taken a bit out him. Or maybe he’s just getting tired of the song already. I kind of am. The crowd seemed to like it alright though. So I guess that’s all that’s really important. The breakdown lead into…

“I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” (remix)
This was where the crazy nightclub bit started. The screen at this point had pretty much obscured the band from view, leaving the light show and screens to do most of the work. And they did. The opening “head-bobbing” intro made me laugh pretty hard. Have you seen the “Discotheque” video? It was sort of like that, except a little less Village People and a little more silly. Also, this version was vastly superior to the album version, with the band walking the catwalk. Especially enjoyable was Larry Mullen Jr walking around with a mic’d drum, providing most of the rhythmic interest in the song. And then he headed back to his drum kit and helped finish up the song. Which was pretty awesome.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
I don’t have much to add what I said earlier. Except, I guess, that The Edge definetly had to reign in Bono on this one (see the “Rock the Casbah” comments.) I have no idea what Bono was riffing on at the end. Something about a “freedom song.”

“MLK”
See my comments above.

“Walk On”
See my comments above. Also, I personally detest this song.

“One”
Amusingly introduced by Desmond Tutu, this performance was significantly closer to the album version than during the Vertigo tour. However, it included the coda that the band added afterward. I don’t remember the “proper” name it has, but it’s pretty well known among the U2 faithful.

“Amazing Grace”
The most “amazing” part of this song was that Bono did this song entirely by himself on guitar and vocals at the same time. Bono has said “I used to want to play guitar very badly. Now I do play guitar. Very badly.” Seriously, though, this was a great bridge into…

“Where the Streets Have No Name”
I think was surprised me the most on this is that Bono didn’t do his traditional lap around the catwalk. Although by this point he was probably a little winded. I’ll allow it. He was, however, pushing the beat pretty hard, so the crowd was having some issues keeping in time. Also included in this was the “All you need is love” coda. I will admit, the song wasn’t as active as it could have been, so I can see why it was dropped from the set the night before.

“Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
The intro to this song was creepy as hell. Aside from that, the main draw of the song was a) being rare, and b) Bono’s crazy laser beam jacket. By which I mean Bono had a jacket with laser beams sewn into it. That, combined with the lighted, hanging microphone, the stage lighting, and some video editing, made this song quite the production number. While not as technically demanding as, say, “I’ll Go Crazy,” it was definitly a viceral experience, even if it’s a song I don’t really like.

“With or Without You”
Not much to say here. It’s “With or Without You.” No wacky codas, but some nice thank yous and whatnot. The Edge is probably right, though: the outro riff is probably the best guitar part he’s ever written. And it’s just some nice, upstroked chords. Nice guitar playing, Mr. The Edge.

“Moment of Surrender”
I don’t particularly like this song. I like the choruses, but that’s about it. I’m pretty sure they could have just ended with “With or Without You” and the show would have been fine. Because I don’t think this song (or at least this performance of it) is making anyone rush out and get the album.

General Notes (aka, For CRAZY Fans Only)

The intro music was David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” There was an overall “space” theme to the show, but it was still pretty loosely tied together. Not the heavy theme of the ZooTV or Popmart tours, but all the extravagance was there. Less push on irony, more push on having fun with millions of dollars worth of electronics.

I thought the set was a little heavy on 2000s-era songs, though having a new album skews that number a bit. I would have liked more Zooropa and Pop in the set, especially given the dance nature of the middle of the show.

As I mentioned with “The Unforgettable Fire,” the show highlighted how little the band has changed as a live act during its existence.

I would have liked a bit more thought in the sequencing of the songs. “Your Blue Room” and “Stay” seemed especially out of place with regard to their positions in the set.

This was the first show since 2001 without “Pride (In the Name of Love)” in the set. Supposedly the official setlist included it after “MLK”, but it wasn’t there in the show.

The Edge’s piano raised up from the stage on songs that he needed it and then lowered back when he was done with it. Not that impressive, but it was a nice detail, and it helped keep the stage neat and organized.

Oh, and Bono, I think the line you wanted to finish your thank you speech in “With or Without You” with was “Don’t forget about us, and don’t forget about each other.” Just in case you’re reading.

Post-Script

My wife and I were talking about the show on the drive back home from Chicago, and I mentioned that, while it’s possible to have someone do a similarly-proficient show on a technical level, it’s unlikely any other band could have done something on this scale. With the industry the way it is, labels are reluctant to fund something like this. And really, U2’s Popmart tour is widely regarded as a failure.

If I had to make a prediction, I’d say Tool or the Rolling Stones are the only bands that would mount such an endeavor, but certainly not on this scale. Other pop acts, like Madonna, Robbie Williams, or some other act of that caliber could probably do something this large, but not this advanced. I really think only U2 have the funds, the fans, and the desire to create a show so over-the-top. But they’re also, I think, conscious of themselves, and can actually pull off the show without it seeming forced, and while still engaging the audience.

In short, I highly recommend seeing this tour if you can because you’re probably not going to see another one like it… unless U2 tries to outdo themselves yet again.

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  1. Liz
    September 15, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    Your Blue Room
    Stay
    Until the End of the World
    Ultraviolet
    ….those four songs would have made me piss myself.

    AWESOME!

  2. Rick
    September 16, 2009 at 7:45 am

    I’m pretty sure if you would have seen “I’ll Go Crazy” you’d have number five. I seriously couldn’t stop laughing. I might have even done some really bad white-boy dancing.

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