U2 360 Returns to Toronto and Finds a Little Bit of Redemption…Maybe
By Jay Moon
For the past two years, U2 have dominated the live concert business, raking in over $700 million at the gate and playing to seven million people during their U2 360 tour, which originally hit the ground in 2009 after the release of the No Line on the Horizon album (the group’s twelfth studio effort).
Those numbers are a little on the unbelievable side, but it’s a relief to see that any mainstream band playing today could probably pull the same thing off-provided of course they have an army of structural engineers, architects, sound and lighting designers, a road crew that numbers in the hundreds, a fleet of transport trucks, and a song catalog that can support a two hour show being performed to at least 50 000 people every night.
Last night U2 returned to Toronto and the Rogers Centre, after having played there during the first run of the tour. It was part of a rescheduled leg of shows that were delayed when frontman Bono had to undergo emergency back surgery last year (one can argue having the weight of the world’s problems on his shoulders might finally be catching up to the 51 year old singer).
Having been in the audience at both of these events, I can say that, as is usually the case with U2 tours, the presentation and focus of the shows has been tweaked and played with dramatically over the two years that the 360 tour has been on the road. And depending on your thoughts about ‘dinosaur’ bands (which unfortunately, as the years pass, U2 finds themselves being lumped in with) relying heavily on their back catalog and essentially ignoring new material, the changes may or may not have been welcomed.
The 360 tour was developed to support the release of No Line on the Horizon, an album that, while a success in the eyes and ears of critics, didn’t exactly cause waves of excitement with U2 fans. When on the road, one thing I’ve always admired about U2 is their insistence to play new material-you’ll get the hits, but you’re going to have to stick around for the whole ride. Having seen the band on their Vertigo tour opening the show with an unknown song (City of Blinding Lights, off of How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb) and the audience singing along by the second chorus, I knew they had the skill to pull it off. The first Toronto visit of the 360 tour was a stark contrast to that, with the band showcasing four or five songs in a row from No Line on the Horizon, and having to fight for the audience’s attention the entire time. In fact, I saw large groups of people leaving their seats three songs into the first set and making a run for the beer stands, in anticipation of not wanting to miss the more familiar material that would follow later in the show. And speaking of seats-they were put to good use. After the initial excitement of the band hitting the stage wore off, most of the audience plunked themselves back in their chairs.
So how did U2 combat the resistance their fans showed towards the songs from No Line on the Horizon? By dropping pretty much all of them from the current setlist, with the exception of the heavily reworked I Know I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, the single Get On Your Boots, and Moment of Surrender, which, like their first stop in Toronto, closed the show.
Instead, U2 shifted focus to 1991’s Achtung Baby, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the album’s release. The first four songs of the evening were Achtung tracks-Even Better Than the Real Thing, The Fly, Mysterious Ways, and Until the End of The World. From there the band mixed in crowd favourites from their earlier days ( I Will Follow), hits from their breakthrough album The Joshua Tree (Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Where the Streets Have No Name), and the big singles (Elevation, Pride, Beautiful Day, Vertigo). The trade off was the band including songs they normally haven’t played live, such as the title track from the Zooropa album and Scarlet, going back to their 1981 release October. The band even broke out Miss Sarajevo, a tune recorded with Brian Eno as part of the 1995 side project Passengers.
The energy level of the Rogers Centre seemed to stay fairly elevated throughout the show, and while I appreciate the band working in buried treasures like Miss Sarajevo, the audience seemed to fade away for a spell during the lesser known songs. U2 also reeled in the politic overtones of the show, keeping the usual ‘message’ song Sunday Bloody Sunday fairly close to its recorded version (no Bono lecture mid-song like past tours), and using Walk On to congratulate the audience on helping to pressure the Burma government to release democratically elected Burma president Aung Sun Suu Kyi-a segment of the show that previously was the main focus of the second half of the concert when Kyi was still under house arrest.
So what does this mean for U2 fans? Well, what we have here is really a very glossy, very ambitious Greatest Hits tour. Which is probably exactly what some people want, but for myself I missed seeing U2 trying to challenge themselves on stage. You might say that for the final shows of the 360 tour they’ve taken the easy road, but it’s hard to argue with their decision. Round One of U2 360 (at least when I saw it) seemed broke. Now it’s fixed, but in doing so has U2 thrown in the towel?