U2, Music City... Magnificient
U2, with Florence + The Machine
Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, TN
Saturday, July 2, 2011
When you have already seen a band four times, you have a pretty good idea what to expect when you see them again. And when that band is U2, you pretty much know that you're going to see a amazing show. I have seen hundreds and hundreds of concerts, and U2 occupies two spots the list on my top five favorite concerts ever (Murphy Center in Murfreesboro in 1987, and Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY in 2001). In fact, they only time I've seen them and it wasn't great was at the Liberty Bowl on the Pop Mart tour, and even that was a good show, it just wasn't spectacular. You can bash them for being self important, for excessive preachiness, or even for not making a truly great album in 20 years. While I may not agree with you, I can at least see your point on any of those issues. But the one thing no one can ever say about U2 is that they aren't a truly phenominal live act. The only other performer I've ever seen who has the ability to make an arena or a stadium feel as intimate as a club show is Bruce Springsteen.
Getting to the show was a nightmare. The lack of public parking on the Vanderbilt campus means you've got to hoof it to the stadium, and with the temperature in the mid-90s and the humidity in the same range, everyone was a hot, sweaty mess by the time they got to there. Vanderbilt Stadium has only four gates to allow entrance, which isn't a problem when you have the smallest stadium in the SEC and you still usually play to a half empty house on Saturdays in the fall. But when you have a sold out concert of 47,000 people, and one of those gates is effectively closed due to the backstage area, the bottleneck trying to get in is insufferable. It didn't get much better once you got inside, as the already narrow concourses were cluttered with beer stands (Vanderbilt usually doesn't allow alcohol sales on campus). So basically by the time I got to my seat, I was both utterly frustrated and practially soaking wet. Once I sat down, I found that the $110 ticket which the seating chart had led me to believe was on the side of the stage was actually a lot closer to the back. I kept thing how much better the setup would have been and LP Field,* and was beginning to think maybe I should have just stayed home and watched Live at Red Rocks.
My mood didn't get much better when Florence + The Machine took the stage. I hadn't heard a lot of them before Saturday night, and their set didn't make me want to hear much of them afterwords. It wasn't terrible or anything, but it definitely wasn't my bag. Despite the presence of a harp player, the music came off as pretty generic mainstream modern rock. Imagine a less bombastic version of Muse fronted by Stevie Nicks singing opera. I guess I am just not a fan of those kind of big voiced singers.
Considering the start the evening had gotten off to, I was legitimately concerned that the night might be beyond repair. But when U2 took to the stage, it was like suddenly being transported to another place... a cooler, dryer, happier place. It's not like it suddenly cooled off, but the heat definitely didn't seem so bad. They kicked things off with a four song blast from Achtung Baby before going all the way back to their debut album for "I Will Follow." And with them really working the 360 degree stage, the seats really didn't seem so bad after all. Over the course of two and a half hours, they played probably the coolest setlist I've ever seen them do. Sure all the concert staples were there, but sprinkled in between their greatest hits were a lot of songs that I didn't expect to hear, "Zooropa" and "Miss Sarajevo" among them. Hell, I had forgotten that "Scarlet" from October even existed! "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" reminded fans that there was once a time when Bono and The Edge could do songs for a superhero project without it being a unmitigated disaster. They even gave new life to songs I was never crazy about in the first place. "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" and "Discoteque" are definitely not two of my favorite tunes, but I've got to admit that the remixed medly of the two sounded great.
Given that this tour has been going on for two years (there were only nine shows left after Nashville), much has already been written of their massive stage, nicknamed "the claw." It was truly an impressive set up, even before giant circular video screen descended and expanded during "Zooropa." For a lot of bands, the gimmicks are needed because that's what makes the show. But with U2, the setting merely enhances what is already going to be great concert (as mentioned earlier, my favorite two shows of theirs were arena shows without all the bells and whistles).
I think the thing that really made this such a great show was the sense of spontaneity that you usually don't get from a production like this, and even that despite their reputation I had never seen like this at a U2 show before. At the end of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," Bono whispered into The Edge's ear, and they segued into "The Wanderer" as an impromptu tribute to Johnny Cash. But the real magical moment of the show came at the very end. After playing "Moment Of Surrender" and taking their final bows, Bono started talking to a fan in the front row as the rest of the band made their way off stage. You heard him ask "What do you want to play?" and a minute later security was helping the guy onstage as Bono asked a roadie to bring him his guitar. The whole scene was was surreal... it was truly odd and you couldn't really believe it was happening. As everyone found out the next day, the guy was blind, hence all the help he needed getting on stage and getting the guitar strapped on. Once Bono and the crew got him all set up and he professed how nervous he was, he started strumming the chords to "All I Want Is You" with Bono singing along. After the second verse, the rest of the band started coming in one by one, with The Edge playing piano. It was one of those goosebump inducing moments that you very rarely get, especially in a spectacle filled stadium show. And it's exactly why for my money, U2 is without a doubt the best live band I have ever seen.
U2 - "The Fly (Lounge Fly Mix)" (mp3) from The Fly single
*Apparently LP Field was the band's first choice of venue to hold the concert, but the Tennessee Titans weren't interested. The CMA Festival (held the first weekend in June) has it in their contract that no other concerts can be held at LP Field in the thirty days before or after their event without their permission, but it turns out that the Titans never bothered to ask them. Perhaps the fact that U2 has had to pay to resod basically every field with natural grass that they've played had (Vanderbilt included) had something to do with that.
photo courtesy of Blue Shoe Nashville