U2 has never been known for its subtlety in staging a touring extravaganza: There’s Bono, in his garishly colored glasses, descending onto the stage from a giant mirror ball-lemon spaceship during the late ’90s PopMart tour.
Or how about the sensory overload of the groundbreaking Zoo TV tour, when rock’s leading frontman and humanitarian assumed the persona of the devilish Mr. MacPhisto in front of dozens of blaring televisions and phoned world leaders from the stage?
U2’s two latest tours saw the band toning down the over-the-top stadium displays for more intimate affairs in American arenas. But that’s about to change as U2 brings its new 360 Degree Tour to the U.S. this month with its biggest spectacle yet — literally, the set features a giant claw that is twice as large as the previous record-holder for musical set piece (the Rolling Stones, no slouches themselves in the realm of stadium spectacle).
In fact, the giant claw takes so much effort to erect and disassemble that three stage pieces were created for various legs of the tour, which began in Barcelona in June and has been selling out cities across Europe all summer. The first American leg of the massive international tour begins this weekend in Chicago at Soldier Field.
As breathtaking as the setting is, it wouldn’t mean a thing without the music. And speaking as someone who saw the band’s last tour (at an arena in Southern California), I can say that U2 provide that magic no matter the venue.
This tour is supporting the band’s newest album, “No Line on the Horizon.” A bit more experimental than its popular predecessors — the return-to-classic-sound of “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” — the album hasn’t sold as well. Though it contains no singles as immediately accessible as “Beautiful Day” or “City of Blinding Lights,” the album grows on you with its intriguing combination of giddy youthfulness (“I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and “Get On Your Boots”) and quieter, reflective maturity (“White as Snow,” “Cedars of Lebanon”).
It’s an album fitting of a band with members in middle age. If the former stabs at pop radio don’t succeed in the same manner as the latter character sketches, there’s happy middle ground in the album’s best songs: the aptly named “Magnificent,” the oddly catchy title tune and, most spectacularly, on the haunting “Moment of Surrender,” perhaps their best song of this decade.
Expect to hear most or all of those songs at U2’s 360 Degree Tour, plus their standards. The great thing about rock concerts today is the ability to check out shows you missed on YouTube. Search for live songs, and you’ll be rewarded with plenty of clips from the European shows. It may be the closest some of us get to being able to see this tour.
If you were lucky enough to score tickets, here’s what to expect based on their European setlists (entirely subject to change, of course):
Sure highlights: “The Unforgettable Fire,” the moody and ethereal title tune from their 1984 album. “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” is a beautifully sung and strangely underrated number from “Zooropa.” And if they break out “Bad,” a live favorite, expect something special.
Bathroom break: The average and overplayed “Vertigo,” the first single from “Atomic Bomb,” or “Get on Your Boots,” the lead single from the current album. Both show the band doesn’t always pick its best material to showcase. “Elevation” is another overplayed rocker.
Regular favorites: The band knows what the audience wants, so it almost always offers up its four greatest songs: “One,” the transcendent peak from their best album, “Achtung Baby,” and the winning trio that kicked off their biggest success with “Joshua Tree” — “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found what I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You.”
A bit unusual: “Electrical Storm,” a single from their second greatest hits albums, was played for the first time in Europe. “Party Girl” is a little-known early number, though nothing particularly special.
Most noble moment: The band is asking members to wear masks of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar opposition leader, during “Walk On,” the Grammy-winning song they wrote for her. Do you think Bono might next try to start a Halloween fad? (What kid wouldn’t want to trick-or-treat as a democracy advocate under house arrest?)
Most ignoble moment: If Bono brings up a pretty, young woman up from the audience to dance with him (as he sometimes does) on “Mysterious Ways.”
Something old: Two of the bands first hits — “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” — are sure to be crowd-pleasers.
Something new: Look for long and luminous “Moment of Surrender” to close out the encore.
Something borrowed: U2 generally likes to slip a cover song (or at least a snippet) into a show, but so far none are part of the setlist. Expect to be surprised.
Something “Blue”: The band has practiced “Your Blue Room,” a somewhat obscure song from its side project “Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1,” for potential inclusion. That would be a treat since “Miss Sarajevo” is generally the only number pulled from that album.
My wish list: “A Sort of Homecoming” (“Unforgettable Fire”); “The First Time” (“Zooropa”); “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” (early single); “Crumbs From Your Table” (“Atomic Bomb”).
You’re unlikely to hear those last great songs I mentioned, but whatever setlist U2 settles on, expect tons of great songs. And even if Bono and the gang have a rare off night, you can always marvel at that giant claw. Either way, U2 knows how to put on a hell of a show.
Colin Powers is a Madison, Wisconsin-based editor and graphic designer. He has more than a dozen years of newspaper experience, including a stint as Life and Arts Editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before its demise in March.
U2’s U.S. TOUR SCHEDULE THIS FALL
Sept. 12, Chicago (Soldier Field)
Sept. 13, Chicago (Soldier Field)
Sept. 16, Toronto (Rogers Centre)
Sept. 17, Toronto (Rogers Centre)
Sept. 20, Foxborough, Mass. (Gillette Stadium)
Sept. 21, Foxborough, Mass. (Gillette Stadium)
Sept. 23, East Rutherford, N.J. (Giants Stadium)
Sept. 24, East Rutherford, N.J. (Giants Stadium)
Sept. 29, Landover, Md. (FedEx Field)
Oct. 1, Charlottesville, Va. (Scott Stadium)
Oct. 3, Raleigh, N.C. (Carter-Finley Stadium)
Oct. 6, Atlanta (Georgia Dome)
Oct. 9, Tampa, Fla. (Raymond James Stadium)
Oct. 12, Arlington, Texas (Cowboys Stadium)
Oct. 14, Houston (Reliant Stadium)
Oct. 18, Norman, Okla. (Oklahoma Memorial Stadium)
Oct. 20, Glendale, Ariz. (University of Phoenix Stadium)
Oct. 23, Las Vegas (Sam Boyd Stadium)
Oct. 25, Pasadena, Calif. (Rose Bowl)
Oct. 28, Vancouver (BC Place Stadium)