"360 Degrees And Rising"
One gets the feeling that the most recent U2 album, No Line On The Horizon, generated
much less interest than expected. Its leadoff single, Get On Your Boots, did garner
some heavy airplay for a week or two, before it became overwhelmingly obvious that
most people did not care for this song. At this point the remaining eleven tracks
on the disc were seemingly pushed out simultaneously in a second bid for a hit, but
none of those caught fire either despite for the most part being better than Boots.
Now they are performing one such number in a frequently aired commercial, yet those
patented ringing ching-a-ching-ching notes have me wondering if guitarist The Edge
is not completely out of ideas. The band as a whole, really: despite having viewed
the spot countless times, I still cannot hum the melody as I write this.
But who are we kidding? At this point in their career, each CD release amounts to
little more than a banner flying behind the world's largest airplane, bearing the
legend WE ARE ABOUT TO GO ON TOUR AGAIN. And oh, what a tour it shall be. With the
Stones surely one step away from retirement, Michael Jackson gone and no serious contenders
emerging since this Dublin quartet's debut some thirty years ago, U2 may not be the
biggest act on the planet but I'm having trouble picturing who else is.
While thankfully devoid of such overblown props as giant lemons, and autos hanging
on chains above the stage - gimmicks intended to be ironic but coming across as merely
ridiculous - a U2 pit stop is still likely the most hotly anticipated event to visit
your city in years. These days they are content to make up in numbers what they have
scaled back in grandeur. Though this year's 360 Degrees tour, which kicked off in
Barcelona on June 30th, does feature an almost crab-like awning that hovers over the
band, and a stage that continually rotates, video screens and all, the band's preferred
vibe since the 2000 All That You Can't Leave Behind effort has been a muted
majesty. As muted as Bono can ever be, anyhow. Make no mistake about it, they are
still moving millions through the turnstiles, but the band is more content now to
let the back catalog speak for itself, and to book, say, seven consecutive nights
in a Chicago arena - as they did on their last tour - than to throw down for 150,000
at a time as they might have done in years past.
Bono's pomposity can turn stomachs - I've no doubt he means well, and has made the
band far more popular than they'd be without him, though this remains the number one
complaint you hear from detractors - except that what's overlooked in all the hype
has always been what a terrific lyricist he's been through the years, and that his
range is far better than people give him credit for. "You don't notice how good a
singer he is until you try to do these songs yourself," a musician friend recently
said to me, and I suppose he is correct. Though the band members themselves are surely
to blame for much of this attention diversion (whether it is an "ironic" 80 foot by
100 foot bank of videos or not playing behind you, this is likely to distract an audience
quite a bit), the public has also generally overlooked what fine musicians drummer
Larry Mullen Jr and bass player Adam Clayton are, and this is one overlooked dimension
that these last few intimate, bells-and-whistles-free tours have attempted to rectify.
Amid all the hoopla, you almost forget no one has lodged more permanent hits into
our collective minds than U2.
Even the often overrated Edge is not without his charms, and certainly knows the guitar. It
Might Get Loud, which opened here in the states on August 14th, is a documentary
focusing on just three musicians: Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White. Based on what
I've seen, it's a fascinating look at the songwriting and recording processes for
each man and his respective bands, and goes into great geekish depth to unearth how
they create their signature sounds both in the studio and on the road. Rather than
some contrived attempt to drum up interest for each's latest project, its trio of
participants seem to genuinely revel in this opportunity to reveal all, and none more
than the former David Evans, who has been holding onto that nickname and the axe in
U2 from day one.
This current tour's set list has more often than not kicked off with two or three
songs from the new album, and plenty more sprinkled throughout. But don't let this
dissuade you from forking over the often astronomical ticket price: there are more
than enough hits packed into this fairly lengthy show, and anyway the latest batch
of songs are better than we were able to admit those few times we heard them on the
You also know you're in store for some political speeches from the sunglass wielding
frontman. These are often delivered with a healthy dose of humor, however, and this
tour's semi-amusing stab at activism is a life sized cutout mask you can print from
U2's website of Myanmar's elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent the last
two decades under house arrest. The idea is to wear this mask out in public, and send
the band photos of yourself doing such, and that by posting these to their website
U2 will raise awareness of Kyi's plight. Which is all very well and noble. Still,
if you tried to tell me that at no point in these discussions did one or all of the
band members crack up with laughter, I'm not sure I would believe that.
Having said that, no band before or since, probably, can pull off heartfelt sincerity
the way U2 can and does. At a recent tour stop, Gary Lightbody of opening act Snow
Patrol was visibly moved to tears by watching the headliners play. Whether a brand
new offering or a classic from the vaults, they deliver the goods with a passion and
an earnestness that's a catharsis for us all, which is why this remains the must see
show of this or any other year.