Sunday, October 04, 2009

‘A Place That Has to Be Believed to Be Seen’: U2, Live at FedEx Field, 9.29.09

U2 has entered the building …

It’s always a big deal when U2 come to town, but when they come to town and play a stadium, it’s an event. News choppers and everything.

Yes, U2’s 360 Tour is a different animal from anything else you’ve ever seen—at least since the last time this band played stadiums, anyway. Everything’s bigger: The venue, the crowd, the stage. Oh … the stage.

FedEx Field is one of the largest stadiums in the country, with seated capacity of about 92,000 (not including the thousands standing on the field). And yet, The Claw made the place feel … well, if not small, then normal at least. The Claw is gigantic. I saw pictures on the Internet beforehand, of course, but it still can’t prepare you for being in its inimitable presence.

Just for reference: The Claw measures 160 feet tall and its footprint stretches from the end zone to about the 40-yard line. It features a 360-degree video screen looming above the main stage. Then there’s an outer runway (similar to the last two U2 tours), connected to the center stage by two bridges that move throughout the show based on where Bono & Co. need to be at a given moment. They built three of these monsters to move the tour around the world; while the band played underneath the one at FedEx Tuesday night, others were under construction in Charlottesville and Charlotte.

The Claw is amazing; Bono described it as a spaceship, and that just about does it.

U2 haven’t attempted a spectacle of this type since the 1990s, with their back-to-back tour extravaganzas known as ZooTV and PopMart. I didn’t attend those treks, but I’ve seen the videos; the difference between those and 360 is a stronger focus on the music. The Claw certainly plays into everything, but this tour still feels like a rock concert, not a Cirque show. Still, with something so big to work around, the 360 Tour certainly is quite scripted, with the bandmembers seemingly “hitting their marks” at specific points in the show.

What that means, though, is the setlist is crafted to darn near perfection. The songs flowed beautifully from one to another throughout the night, and the selections, on the whole, are right on.

“Breathe,” off the new album, is a killer opener, with Larry Mullen opening the show under a pale spotlight with his thundering drum solo before the rest of the band explodes into the song. Bono, in particular, deserves extra credit here; the rambling style of his lyrics on this track could be troublesome to pull off live, but he nails them.

“Magnificent,” on the other hand, is not quite as good in the live setting as I’d hoped, perhaps because it’s a bit subtler of a song than I thought; “Get on Your Boots,” on the other hand, works really well and packs a huge punch, despite Bono calling it a song “we can hardly play.” “Mysterious Ways” closed the opening salvo on a high, sounding perhaps stronger on this tour than it ever has. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” meanwhile, seems on the surface like maybe too quiet a song to hold such a huge venue, but exactly the opposite occurred. I’ve heard “Still Haven’t Found” during each of the tours I’ve attended this decade, and this was the best version yet; the singalong is a little tougher to accomplish in such a place, but this song reached everyone from the people standing at Bono’s feet to those all the way up in the nosebleeds, filling the cavernous stadium’s every nook and cranny.

You start to feel the brilliant pacing of the show by this point. “Still Haven’t Found” took the foot off the gas just a touch, but ramped up the emotions. “Elevation” up next puts everything back on blast, but then they ease off again with the most difficult song of the night, “Your Blue Room.” This unearthed track from the all but unknown Passengers period of the mid-’90s was without question the “bathroom break” moment of the show, but I give U2 credit for doing it anyway. It was weird, gutsy, and, for me, totally worked, if for nothing else than it’s so unexpected in a venue of this size. As strange as it may seem, it really meshes well with the narrative of the show, which is all about “liftoff,” as in the background there were samples of astronauts speaking about viewing Earth from space. Much of the 360 show you kinda have to be there to understand, and this is one of those times.

Anybody who felt a little lost, though, found a touchstone immediately afterward as the band launched into “Beautiful Day,” which still holds up just fine nearly a decade after its debut. It was paired with another warhorse, “New Year’s Day,” which sounds as lively as ever with Edge venturing to the “back” of the stage for his piano/guitar two-step that is always mesmerizing. U2 can play this song at every show I ever attend, if they would like (though please don’t try and ruin it with any more Ted Kennedy dedications, Bono!). And you wouldn’t guess it just from looking at the setlist, but “Stuck in a Moment,” just Bono and Edge acoustic (as I definitely prefer the song), was a showstopper. Strip away all the lights and gizmos and whatever, and these two guys can still get it done all by themselves, no problem.

But those lights and gizmos sure are fun. The next section of the show was by far my favorite, because it made the most use of The Claw. Up until this point, the monster was basically just a backdrop, with some cool lighting and, again, those moving bridges. But leading into “The Unforgettable Fire,” the central video screen expanded, descending almost to the main stage to create a giant cone of light. Meanwhile, the rest of the structure showed off more of its tricks, too: During “City of Blinding Lights,” spotlights shot out of the top that you could probably see from Pennsylvania, much less Pennsylvania Avenue. A special shout-out to “Vertigo,” too, which holds up quite well and was the best rave-up song of the night.

So this brings us to my favorite moment of the entire show—who would have thought it would be “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”? The band’s reworked the pop/rock track from “No Line On the Horizon” into a loopy house-mix beast, with disco lights aflutter all over the arena and Bono rapping Fly-style over the top of a club beat led by Larry strutting around the runway playing bongos (“Larry Mullen wants to go crazy,” Bono quipped, “Larry Mullen is crazy!”). It’s the closest this band has sounded to “Pop” in a decade (think “Discotheque”); you just gotta see it to believe how awesome it is.

It may seem impossible to move from the frivolity of “Crazy Tonight” to the gut-punch of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” but Bono accomplished it effortlessly by repeating the key phrase of “Crazy”—“A change of heart comes slow”—and leading into a dedication of the band’s biggest and best protest song to the objectors in Iran, The Claw decked out in Iranian green to match. The final couplet of the main set, “MLK” leading into “Walk On,” was dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, an imprisoned Burmese activist whom the song was originally written for. During the song people from backstage came out on the runway holding up Kyi masks in front of their faces, but it didn’t come off too well—better to just let the song do its thing, I think.

You can’t really go wrong with the two choices for the first encore, “One” and “Where the Streets Have No Name,” but the former continues to be less and less meaningful as Bono uses it more as a campaign slogan than an actual song. This time around it featured a recorded video intro from Desmond Tutu (remember his shout out from “Rattle and Hum”?), and Bono thanked President Bush for his help in AIDS drugs for Africa (side note: Bush received no boos that I heard, but Nancy Pelosi certainly did earlier in the night).


I don’t exactly understand why, but U2 have a long history of closing their shows with mellow songs, and the 360 Tour is no exception. “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” started things off on a high note, with Bono donning a jacket outfitted with red lights while he swings around on an awesome steering wheel-style microphone that drops from The Claw and lights up his face. “Ultraviolet” is a big, big highlight of this show.

Light my way …

“With or Without You,” up next, is one of those songs I never look forward to in a U2 show, but always get swept up in when it hits. It was no different here, as FedEx was bathed in sparkling light from The Claw. I’m still not sold on “Moment of Surrender” as a finale, meanwhile. It’s reminiscent of closing ZooTV with “Love Is Blindness.” That’s not to say it’s not an excellent song, though, because it is and certainly deserves a prominent spot in this tour. U2 obviously know what they’re doing, but I’d consider flipping “Surrender” and “With or Without You” to wrap the night.

On a technical level, the band sounded as good or better than I’ve ever heard them in person. They were sharp, crisp, and Bono’s voice has almost returned to its 1980s-era depth and glory. Unfortunately, in an open-air venue, wind played a definite factor in the sound quality; when a gust came up, it made the music warble. Certainly no complaints about the setlist, either, as it caters to both new and old, hardcore and casual fans. The U2 nuts get chestnuts like “Unforgettable Fire,” “Ultraviolet,” and “Your Blue Room,” while those who may have only bought a couple U2 CDs in the past 20 years still hear the Big Three from “The Joshua Tree” and, presumably, go home happy.

On an emotional level, though, 360 left me a bit cool. The show is more spectacle than spectacular. Though it’s not garish like ZooTV or PopMart, it’s still inevitably choreographed, and unless you waited all day for a good spot on the field, you’re gonna be way, way far away from the stage and end up watching the monitors more than the band members. I knew this going in, though; looking forward to the spectacle, I was not disappointed. I’m glad I was able to take the whole thing in because The Claw is a sight to behold—no matter where you are in the stadium, you'll think you have the coolest view.

I left the show ebullient but not emotionally moved, and I definitely don’t feel the need to go again right away the way I have on previous tours. Maybe if they come around again next summer I’ll take my chances on the grass.


FedEx Field

Landover, Maryland





Get on Your Boots

Mysterious Ways

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For


Your Blue Room

Beautiful Day

New Year’s Day

Stuck in a Moment (Bono & Edge acoustic)

The Unforgettable Fire

City of Blinding Lights


Crazy Tonight

Sunday Bloody Sunday

MLK/Walk On



Where the Streets Have No Name


Ultraviolet (Light My Way)

With or Without You

Moment of Surrender

Show time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

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