Last Thursday, I attended the seventh of U2's eight concerts at Madison Square Garden, which concluded their U.S. tour. It was my 18th U2 concert since 1997. Here are my notes, assembled in chronological order, which is the most boring possible method of review writing. Let's go!
1. Bono took the stage by himself, at the opposite end of the arena from the band. Most of the folks surrounding the B-stage on the floor where we were (though it’s called the E-stage now, being that this is the annoying capitalized iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour) were staring at one of house-right floor entrances to the arena, smart phones at the ready, from the moment Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” started playing on the P.A. I don’t like that he enters on his own. It contradicts the “just the four of us” narrative that they’ve always fostered, and it’s worth fostering. What other band has stayed intact with its original lineup for just a year or two shy of four decades?
2. My fellow superfans were really nice. We were in the G.A. line ahead of a guy named Bob Springsteen, of the Arkansas Springsteens — he showed me his I.D., unbidden. He was at the show with a pal on this evening but returning with his wife and young daughters, he said, the following night. So Bob Springsteen was in the house the night Bruce Springsteen joined U2 on stage. (I was not.) I’d been reading rumors of a Bruuuuuce appearance on fan sites for a week, and I figured, accurately, that if he showed up he would join in on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which he played with U2 after inducting them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 10 years ago. (He was returning the favor. Bono gave Bruce’s induction speech in 1998.) He also played it with U2 at the 25th anniversary concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. So a not-especially-surprising surprise.
3. Some superfans are more obsessive than others: Sure, I spent most of my train ride home from New York City trying to organize my thoughts about the show into an at least semi-coherent narrative — you're welcome — but trust me, I barely register on the Obsessive-Compulsive U2 Fan Index.
Before the show I chatted with a lady who was dressed as Mr. MacPhisto, the satanic character in devil’s horns, kabuki makeup, and gold lame whom Bono played in the encore portion of the show on the 1993 Zooropa Tour. Her husband was dressed in The Edge’s No. 7 sports jersey and stocking cap from the Elevation Tour. Another lady, named Liz, whom I spoke with at some length, wore no costume but resembled the actress Melanie Lynskey. Her first U2 show was the same as mine, we discovered: On the PopMart Tour, at RFK Stadium, Washington, DC, May 26, 1997. There was also a guy there from Verona, Italy, who had elaborate tattoos done from Zooropa-era photographs of the band on his leg and back. (I recognized the photographs from which the the tattoos were copied.)
4. After the four-song opening salvo — “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” “The Electric Co.,” (though this song changes nightly), “Vertigo,” and “I Will Follow” — Bono spoke for a few minutes before segueing into the sequence of autobiographical numbers from Songs of Innocence, the 2014 U2 album that you got for free if you have an iTunes account, and probably kept if you’re bothering to read this. He mentioned that he and Edge had spent the afternoon on Ellis Island, participating in some ceremonial donation of something or other with Yoko Ono. He also told a joke: “An Englishman gets into a cab and says, ‘Will you take me to the Empire State Building or should I just go fuck myself?’…I don’t know why I just said that.” The next song was “Iris,” about Bono’s mother, and he apologized to her “for the eff word.” (Iris Hewson died suddenly when Bono was 14.)
5. This Chicago Tribune piece by Kevin Pang, a reporter who attended all five nights of U2’s residency at Chicago’s United Center, expressed disappointment at the high degree of overlap among their setlists — always a complaint among U2 fans. They tend to swap out at most 4-6 songs from night to night, which means less variety than you get at a Springsteen show, for example, leaving aside the fact that a typical Springsteen performance is also about an hour longer than a U2 concert.
When the tour was announced, U2 said they planned to perform two different sets in each city, one reflecting the theme of Innocence and the other, Experience. (A companion album, Songs of Experience, is supposedly forthcoming, but I'll believe it when it shows up automatically in my iTunes purchase history.) Though they initially booked pairs of shows at each tour stop, by the time the tour actually started in mid-May, the dual-setlist idea was already dead.
Pang concluded the show was "a Broadway musical under the guise of a rock and roll show, from a band who at their best, can give you the biggest religious high this side of the secular arts." Two nights after the concert, I saw a real Broadway musical: Hamilton. And it was the best one I've ever seen. The show had just transferred to a Broadway (and was officially still in previews) after a sold-out run at The Public Theatre earlier this year. The distinction between seeing something fresh and new and of the moment — even though it's about a guy who's been dead for 210 years — and seeing something great but inarguably past its prime was palpable.
6. The concert's first act —10 songs wherein only the second song changes — spins a narrative of the four band members' youth in a Dublin beset by violence. It's separated from the second part of the show by a five-or-six-minute intermission accompanied by one of a few different music videos. (I wanted either the video of U2's various punk influences, or the one of Johnny Cash singing "The Wanderer," but it was just a remix of "The Fly" with the messages from U2's Zoo TV-era performance of that song —"Watch More TV," "Death Is a Career Move," etc." — flashing on the video wall.)
Act One ends with “Until the End of the World,” a song U2 played every night for three tours after Achtung Baby, its home album, and continued to play sporadically during the Vertigo and 360 Tours. In this show, it’s restored to every-night status. Of U2’s warhorses, it’s the one I tire of least. It was never a single, but it’s one of the best songs they’ve ever released.
7. Act Two is less narrative, and could stand a lot more variety than it delivers. There are two wildcard slots in the second set most nights. The songs we got were “Ordinary Love,” which I don’t especially like but enjoyed more than I ever have before, and “Elevation,” which could be retired. It worked great as a high-energy opener on the 2001 Elevation Tour, but it’s just too much of a grenade of a song to make sense in any other spot, unless it’s going to open the encore. U2 have put it in the body of the set proper for three consecutive tours now, so clearly they disagree with me.
8. But we also got a genuine rarity: Their first performance of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” (save for when Bono and Edge played it at Reed’s funeral in 2013) since the end of the Zoo TV Tour in 1993. That song was in the Zoo TV set every night of the two-year, 150-something show tour, which I never saw and always regretted. Relatively early on, Bono started performing the song as a duet with a video of Reed, which U2 resurrected for this performance on Thursday night. Bono didn’t attempt the falsetto he sang it with two decades ago. You can hear that in this clip from a November 1993 concert in Sydney that was broadcast on pay-per-view and released on video half a year later.
In the General Admission line earlier that evening, I’d been telling my man Bob Springsteen how for me ZOO TV will always be the white whale of rock tours. (I’ve had a bootleg of the RFK Stadium show I could’ve attended — August 16, 1992 — for 20 years.) So to hear “Satellite of Love” offered me a sort of closure, since this U2 tour is probably my last as a superfan.
I mean, I only saw this show once, for crying out loud. I deliberated going again the night after, spurred on by persistent (and accurate) rumors of the Springsteen appearance, but in the end I just wasn’t willing to part with upwards of $500 for another pair of tickets. And so I left the standby line in front of he Garden on Friday night after Twitter reported the show had begun. While U2 performed across the street from my hotel, I went running along the West Side Highway, listening to U2.
9. The tickets I did have, on the floor, were $89 each. As with every tour since Elevation, the best “seats,” if you can stand to stand, were also the cheapest. Adding on the cost of renewing my membership in U2’s official (and now Live Nation-managed) fan club so that I could participate in the ticket presale and avoid paying scalper prices brings the price to $114 apiece. That’s a fair freight for a U2 ticket in 2015.
10. In the audience with us were some firefighters from Engine 44, the company that responded to the 911 call after Bono’s bike accident in Central Park last fall — a collision that left him seriously injured and forced to cancel a planned week of appearances on The Tonight Show, among other dates. The woman who called 911 for him was also there. Bono announced all of these guests from the B-stage. The woman, he said, was from B.C. He handed the microphone to one of the firefighters who said something like, “We promised you Jameson, Bono! We’ll always take care of you, Bono!” They gave him a shot of whiskey and he downed it. Good times. Then Bono handed the microphone to the samaritan who’d called 911 for him.
She took this opportunity to correct him as to her point of origin. “I’m from DC,” she said. Like me! Northern Virginia in fact, where I lived from the time I was an infant until I left for college. She said she’d been running in the park, and she saw that someone who’d been biking was on the ground seriously hurt, and she stopped to render assistance because “I’m not from New York.” People who aren’t from New York actually look out for one another, she said.
In other words, she absolutely asked to have 17,999 people boo her. Which they did. You can’t really tell in the photo I snuck (I wasn’t going to watch the whole show or even a quarter of it through the reality-distorting prism of my iPhone) but Larry and Edge were cracking up while all this was going on. In fact, Larry Mullen, Jr., owner of the most famous scowl in rock and roll, smiled more during this U2 concert than I’ve ever seen from him. All this was streamed via Meerkat, but I can't find that video archived on YouTube now.
11. “Bullet the Blue Sky” had interesting, updated lyrics wherein Bono the Davos-attending, investment firm co-founding, 55-year-old jet-setter defends himself against charges of being a sell-out levied against him by his younger self. It’s hard to think of another artist besides Bono who has managed to cajole himself into a position where he can actually influence policy in matters he could only rail about from the stage a generation ago. Certainly he and U2 have done some things that’ve displeased me as a lifelong fan — mainly getting into bed with Live Nation, an organization that has done everything it can to inflate the cost of attending a concert. (And essentially pleading ignorance when a journalist, the great Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune and Sound Opinions, finally asked him about it.)
But I basically buy Bono’s defense that he can do more to help from inside the corridors of power than he could if he were still calling out “Ronald Ray-gun” while performing “Bullet the Blue Sky.” Here's something he said in that interview with Kot: "The discovery for me several years ago was that America wasn't a country, but an idea. It's meant to be completed." That idea also courses through Hamilton, being that it's a biography of one of the Founding Fathers, who was himself an immigrant to what became the United States.
Anyway, “Bullet” is a song that I’m almost certain has been performed at every full-length U2 concert from 1987 Joshua Tree Tour, when the song was new, up through the 2005-6 Vertigo Tour. It sat out the 2009-11 360 Tour, and I thought I never needed to hear it again. U2 clearly regard it as a staple, though, and they’ve released at least three different live versions of it officially that I can recall offhand. With so much of their 35-year catalog in mothballs seemingly forever, I wouldn’t have minded if this one had stayed retired — I’ve heard them play it live myself more than a dozen times — but it sounded good. There in the room (or in the stadium), you get why they keep it in their arsenal. Of course, at the end of the song Bono said, “I can’t breathe.” So apparently this version is also in some way about the rash of police killings of unarmed suspects in recent months.
12. Will Dana, the veteran Rolling Stone managing editor on whose watch the University of Virginia campus rape story fell apart last fall, finally announced he was leaving the magazine the day before the concert. You may recall that story hinged on the account of one student who claimed she'd been gang-raped at a fraternity party.
Everything about this story is awful, because (I believe) sexual assault goes unreported and unpunished all the time. But in this particular case, the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, admitted she'd made no real attempt to fact-check the student's account. She did not try to interview those she accused in her piece. The Charlottesville, Va. police found no evidence to substantiate the assault. Rolling Stone retracted the story and is the defendant in multiple defamation suits resulting from it.
No, of course Bono was referring to all the admiring coverage — sometimes absurdly admiring — that Rolling Stone has given U2 throughout their career. It was only 1985 when RS proclaimed U2 "Our Choice: The Band of the 80s," for heaven's sake, and RS gave Songs of Innocence a five-star review and then proclaimed it the best album of 2014. He thanked his old pal Jann Wenner by name. Still, "believers" was an unfortunate choice of words here. By being too credulous, Rolling Stone has only made it harder for other victims of sexual assault to find justice.
13. Bono changed a lyric in "Beautiful Day" to "Jessica Chastain right in front of you." A shameless starfucker, Bono. I'm used to seeing U2 play in DC, where in the last 15 years he's been more likely to shout out Nancy Pelosi or Eunice Shriver than someone you might actually be excited to learn was in your midst.
I mention this only because I was offered the chance to interview Chastain for my day job at Air & Space / Smithsonian that weekend, by phone, on Sunday. (She's in the upcoming film version of Andy Weir's The Martian, a science fiction we at the magazine liked a lot.) I had to decline because I was going to be on a train home from New York City at the proferred time. We could've just hooked up for a chat after the show.
14. Every time I see U2 I understand a little more why so many people dislike Bono so much. He feels compelled to sloganeer, even when you don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. At one point late in the show he was screaming something about “summer 2015!” Like we were all supposed to cheer for summer. During “Pride (In the Name of Love),” another U2 concert staple that I’ve long thought ought to be retired since Bono has a hard time hitting those throat-shredding notes nowadays, he talked about “the peacemakers” in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston. “Dr. King, we need you more than ever,” he said. But I did notice he corrected the error in the original lyric, singing “late evening, April 4” to reflect the time of day Dr. King was assassinated. On the recording, the line is “early morning.”
15. Bono sang a little bit of “Satellite of Love” again during “With or Without You,” where he often sings part of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” He often sings parts of other famous songs during U2 songs, but this one struck me as unusually odd, because "With or Without You" is a great swell of emotion and "Satellite of Love" is much more arch.
16. Bono has been singing a verse and chorus of Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” before “Where the Streets Have No Name” on this tour. On this evening, Simon joined him onstage and sang a bit more of the song than Bono does, apparently. And we could not hear him at all.
17. Here’re the U2 songs that’ve never skipped more than one tour since they were introduced. As in, these have been in the setlist every night of every tour since they were new, or have skipped only one tour: “I Will Follow.” “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” “Pride (In the Name of Love).” “Where the Streets Have No Name.” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” “With or Without You.” “Bullet the Blue Sky.” “One.” “Mysterious Ways.” “Until the End of the World.” “Beautiful Day.” “Elevation.” “Vertigo.” “City of Blinding Lights.”
A dozen of those were in the show I saw. Of 25 songs performed, 10 were released in the 21st century. Twelve, if we count the year 2000 as part of the 21st century. Only eight were less than a decade old. I think the only band in U2's mid-fifties demo with a deep back catalog I've ever seen devote more of a concert to "new" material was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, always in venues much smaller than an 18,000-capacity sports hall. But still.
18. The closer most nights this tour has been either “One” or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The latter was on the setlist the night I was in the house, but “One” was what got played. Bono let the audience since nearly all of it. It sounded bad and felt anticlimactic. I wish he would’ve sung it himself.
19. In the standby line on Friday night, I overheard a guy telling two pals he’d bought a pair of tickets for one of the prior Madison Square Garden shows that turned out to be counterfeit. He said he’d found them on Craigslist, and spoke to the seller on the phone. Still he got taken. Another guy who offered me a pair of tickets “right across from the stage” for $750 vouched for their authenticity by suggesting he give one to my girlfriend, we watch her go into the venue together, and then I pay him for both tickets. But that was more than I was willing to spend to see a show I knew would not differ from the prior night’s set by more than 20 percent — thoughTwitter had told me by this point that Springsteen’s son was up on the B-stage getting his photo taken, lending credence to the rumor that The Boss would appear.
I sure would've paid $220 for another pair of floor tickets, though.