Sunday, September 27, 2009

The shows, a week later...

In August of 1993, I'd made my way with three girlfriends on my first overseas trip to make the pilgrimage of all pilgrimages, to see U2 play in their hometown of Dublin. Of all of the many, many images that are still ingrained in my mind from that week, the one that stands out for me occurred as I was standing at the end of the b-stage extension into the massive general admission crowd. Me, separated from my girlfriends due to the surge of the crowd and our inexperience dealing with the push to the guardrails around the stage, but still ecstatic being within arm's length of U2 for the first time ever. I'd deal with finding my friends later, but right then, I was soaking in the moment. To wrap up that part of the show, Bono and Edge performed a haunting acoustic version of Stay (Faraway So Close) and I remember handing my camera to a girl on the shoulders of her boyfriend next to me, asking her to take a photo of them over the crowd. She framed it beautifully, capturing the moment for me forever, as simple and stripped down a moment as that acoustic version was, reminding me even to this day of what it meant to me then to be a U2 fan.

Fast-forward 16 years, where you'll find me complaining and whining about a horrible album (come on, it IS!) and the prospect of attending two shows which I had braced myself for, expecting only terrible, hoping that with such low expectations I would only be surprised. Well, it turned out not quite that way.

To put it simply, the first show was an utter embarrassment. I know we're all guilty of this at our own jobs at one time or another, but for the first Foxboro show, U2 phoned it in. They thought it was enough to show up, go through the motions, play the songs lifelessly and perform to a script that had worked for them in Barcelona, Amsterdam and London. I am convinced that they forgot where they were, who they were playing to and what this city expects of them. We are their second home. We made them in this country. We deserve something better than just phoning it in. This crowd, predominantly Irish itself, I might remind you, brings 100% heart and soul to whatever venue U2 plays in and apparently Sunday night that was not enough for the band to feed off of. It was a heartless, lifeless and flat performance. No spark, no sparkle.

In combing that night for something positive to talk about here, I come up only with the remixed version of I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight. I've yet to figure out if I like it because it's better than the original, if I'm hearing it only for it's Spinning class potential or if it's just that Adam carries that song on the neck of his bass. But of the entire night, that was the standout moment for me. Everything else, the staging (which yes, does seem to be trying to compensate for failings in performance), the swagger, the canned all fell short. The band spent so much time prowling the catwalks individually that unless you were within arms' length of them, you would have thought they were each trying out for their own solo projects.

But Bono's voice, oh man, Bono's voice. All too often he would attempt to hit and miss, or he'd talk the lyrics through without even trying, or he'd ask us to sing for him. Sorry, I didn't pay $300 a ticket to sing for you. A few times I felt like he was purposefully ruining the lyric with a god-awful cat in a blender strain (first line of Moment of Surrender, he did it in the Saturday Night Live performance as well). Is that attractive, cute or on purpose at all? If it was a deliberate strain to try to instill some passion, please, stop it. You're shortening an already short shelf-life for what's left of your nicotine-ruined throat. On top of the voice, Bono completely forgot lyrics (Ultraviolet, The Unforgettable Fire), mis-sang them (Magnificent) or changed them to something like a Christopher Walken rap (With Or Without You), making them regrettable despite the band's best efforts.

I spent a sleepless (thanks to coffee Bailey's and candy corn combination) 24 hours waiting for night two. We made our way back down to Foxboro, gluttons for punishment that we are. Things seemed a bit off kilter, as we were still nearly 2 miles away as Snow Patrol were going on stage. Snow Patrol started late and ended later than the night before, which makes me antsy, knowing how hard it is for U2 to change things up and adapt to something off-script. I wondered if we'd suffer due to Snow Patrol's tardiness.

The lights dimmed and Larry came out, tonight not alone, but with the full band. I looked at Allison and said "Something's up, this isn't going to be Breathe." And I was right. They committed what is, for them, a cardinal sin and changed up a strictly static setlist, and launched into Magnificent. I suspected that Breathe might make a later appearance but it did not. But the show already had a different feel to it. Bono was tearing around the main stage like a boxer getting ready for his title bout. He even seemed to acknowledge the lack of delivery the night before by saying: "Last night (shakes his head), this is the night. You want it as much as we want it, this is it." Everything seemed more on fire, everything had an edge, The Edge. On the second night they came to tear it up, and tear it up they did. It was a tighter, more cohesive, more electric performance. The band did not leave the main stageand wander individually as much as they did the night before. They stuck closer together and when they did venture off the main stage, they interacted more with each other. Was it this proximity alone that held this show together? Was it a caffeine injection, a better night's sleep or the scathing review in the Boston Globe that morning that slapped them back into reality? We'll never know, but it made for a better show. Certainly not the best I've ever seen, but night and day different from the night before.

Ultimately it turned out that Breathe was dropped for Your Blue Room (a hellacious choice of a Passengers track, but that's a big enough topic for another post), New Year's Day was dropped for Until the End of the World (a crowd-pleasing ass kicker) and Stuck in a Moment was dropped for a beautiful acoustic version of Stay. And during Stay I think I realized that my world had come full-circle in 16 years. At the point where Bono sings "and if you shout, I'll only hear you", I realized I was seeing the exact same silhouette of guitarist and singer letting their hearts out like they did in Dublin in 1993. And I found myself a little teary. Remembering that during the intervening 16 years, there were highs and lows, agonies and ecstasies, losses and celebrations, just like these two nights proved. Many things come and go: friends and lovers, jobs and projects, but it's good to know that the memory of a lifetime can find it's way back to you when you need it the most. And with that, I realized that while I may have been disappointed with this album and maybe even this tour and quite possibly this band, that is completely ok. I found it didn't take much to scratch the surface and find what mattered the most.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Blog of a despondent U2 fan

Ordinarily the day before a U2 show would find me nearly uncontained, climbing the walls, blaring the tunes and anxiously awaiting showtime, when my self-imposed media blackout would end and all would be revealed to me over the course of two hours. I've been down this road for six tours over 22 years. I know how it's supposed to work, and how I'm supposed to feel right about now. This time though, I'm just empty.

Let's rewind to February of this year. Get On Your Boots had just been released and I was underwhelmed. Underwhelmed and disappointed. But I reconciled my feelings by convincing myself that they needed a poppy hit to get back on the radio and rake in the younger fans. Then, sitting in my hotel room on vacation in London (because, yes, diehard fans do do this sort of thing on vacation!), I started to download leaked tracks from the album. And the more I heard the more disappointed I became.

On first listen, it hurt. Bono's voice sounds like it's been scoured with razor blades in places; he sounds like he's reaching for the top shelf when really he should be using that step stool. Age, the smoke and the drink are catching up with him and here we hear that he hasn't come to terms with it yet. But the lyrics...the lyrics had me asking "REALLY?" a few more times than I was comfortable with. "She put her tongue in my ear", "I won't stand for anyone's cockatoo", "the ATM machine" (reminder Bono, the "M" in "ATM" stands for MACHINE), "no, no line on the horizon" (isn't that a double negative, so there IS a line on the horizon? Or were we just trying to find another syllable for iambic pentameter?). Is this really the best they could do? Or were they just trying to top "Grace is the name of a girl" from the album All That You Can't Leave Behind?

Three songs were wholly unlistenable to me, which other than The Wanderer on Pop, is a complete anomaly for me. They make me so uncomfortable that once, walking to work, I nearly threw my iPod into a puddle on Devonshire Street in Boston as I tried to swallow Moment of Surrender like a belligerent child tries to spit out his broccoli. That, Cedars of Lebanon and White As Snow might as well be funeral dirges. Make them stop, or help me find the skip button. Everyone said I'd get used to the songs, the album would grow on me, I was just shocked with the new direction. But you know what, that hasn't happened. I loved Magnificent on first listen and still think it's the best track on the album, but it is also the only track reminiscent of the screaming anthems of old. I have warmed to Being Born (minus Fez) and Stand Up Comedy, but SURPRISE, they don't play either of them live; it figures. An inside joke about the family cats has me laughing along with Get On Your Boots. But that's about it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: ultimately I think the band will look back on this album and realize it was a huge mistake and be disappointed in this as they were with Passengers. Stick with me kids, I tend to be about 6 months ahead of everyone else when it comes to this sort of thing...I'm already seeing fans who loved this in the beginning start to shake their heads. You know now I'm right. Ask and answer yourself honestly: will you be listening to this album once the tour ends? I didn't think so.

And to top off this story of a fallen U2 fan, I have $1000 worth of tickets for two shows. When tickets went on sale in March, I bet that the album would sit better with me over time. I'm hoping that live and in person, the bet pays off.

I've watched bits on YouTube from other shows on the tour. I've read the setlists and found a couple of oldies that they've dug up and I'm eager to hear for myself once again. But I've read and seen a lot that disappoints me and makes me wonder what exactly they are thinking with this tour. Are the gimmicks and the artifice of a massive staging enhancing the production or merely covering up the mediocrity I'm feeling off the album? What I'm hoping is that in context of the entire show, it all makes sense and I don't walk away from two nights in Foxboro shaking my head.

Time will tell. In the meantime, I've loaded the camera, packed the cooler and put on my game face. I'll climb into the limo with my concert-going posse hoping that maybe my boys won't let me down. With such low expectations, maybe I can only be pleasantly surprised.