Another Time, Another Place: U2 Live in 2015
I will admit it: I gave up on U2 a long time ago. With the exception of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, I haven’t bought a U2 album in nearly 15 years (since 1991’s Achtung Baby). Nor did I bother to listen to Songs of Innocence when it appeared in my iTunes library last year. It’s not that I was offended by Bono giving it to me for free; it just never rose to the top of my To Do list. And I haven’t gone to a U2 concert since Radio City Music Hall in 1984.
Although I still enjoy U2’s music, they are like an old friend with whom I have lost touch through the years.
So when an old friend with whom I have not lost touch told me he had an extra ticket to the band’s show in San Jose, I had mixed feelings about spending the money. I remained on the fence until my friend said he could get us into the band’s hospitality suite before the show. Free food and drinks? I’m in.
My immediate reaction to seeing the band come on stage together, a little grizzled, moving a little slower, was a sense of incredulousness that these four guys, after 35 years, are still a part of each others’ daily lives. Just watching them perform together is a moving experience. Unless you live on a kibbutz, it is unlikely that you interact with old friends on a near daily basis. You’re lucky if you can carve out a beer after work once every few months. But Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. have been hanging out together in some way, shape or form for 35 years, if not on a daily basis, then approaching it. I remember a friend wistfully remarking that he wished we could all continue to hang out together after graduating from college. U2 is actually living that dream. Put aside all the fortune and fame – that is what makes them exceptional in my book.
And that childhood bond continues to fuel the band. It is why there have been no breakups, no stints in drug or alcohol rehab, no lackluster side projects (excepting the Broadway musical, Spider Man:Turn Off the Dark; not even the music could rescue that train wreck). U2 are the consummate professional musicians. As I get older myself, I appreciate that professionalism even more. I no longer need my rock heroes to live on the brink.
One of the reasons I gave up on U2 was that it seemed like their sound changed with each new album. I’m all for personal growth and evolution, but some of U2’s mid-career shifts were real tangents (what was the deal with Zooropa?). But at the San Jose show, the familiar “U2 sound” was a constant theme running through the band’s entire repertoire. From “I Will Follow” and “The Electric Co.” off their first record, Boy, to “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” off their last record, Songs of Innocence, to all the stops in the years in between, including “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “One,” and “Beautiful Day.” The Edge’s delay-riddled guitar riffs, Larry Mullen, Jr.’s marching band drum stylings and Adam Clayton’s plush bass were all in full bloom. There is a consistency to U2’s sound that comes through more in live performances than on studio records. And it is a sound that, despite U2’s immense popularity, few, if any, bands have replicated. Unlike their contemporaries, R.E.M., who also had a unique sound, U2 has not spawned many bands that sound like them. Similar to that of Jimi Hendrix, The Edge’s guitar sound – the backbone of U2 — remains unique.
Speaking of which, the highlight of the show for me was The Edge’s solo during “Bullet the Blue Sky.” It was thunderous, filling the arena with electric shards of grandiose distortion, the double hit on the off beats bringing an extra charge to it. I had an epiphany during the solo that the electric guitar, unlike the human voice, is not subject to natural degradation. While Bono’s voice is still in top form, I found myself thinking about Jerry Garcia’s voice and how awful it sounded, really after 1980 but certainly by the ‘90s – it was hard to listen to. Listening to The Edge’s glorious solo made me feel as if I were in touch with the immortal. Not bad for a Tuesday night.
Here is a recent clip of the band performing “Bullet The Blue Sky” in Chicago. Start listening at about the 4:00 mark for the guitar solo. The clip doesn’t fully convey its power – it’s sort of like taking a picture of the Sierras through an airplane window – but it gives you the idea.
Another highlight of the show was “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” It was stripped down, almost hushed, performed by the band while walking the length of the runway between the main stage and a second auxiliary stage, Larry Mullen, Jr. playing a single snare drum hanging off his shoulder. I felt like I was watching a funeral procession, the simple power of the music equal to the emotional force of the lyrics.
I am ashamed that it took an offer of free food and drinks backstage to sell me on the show. As it turned out, the food and drinks were decidedly mediocre. The scene wasn’t anything special either. We did see Green Day’s Billie Jo Armstrong and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher wandering around. But compared to U2, those guys seemed like posers. U2 is the real deal, the standard by which any self-respecting rock band should judge itself, professionally and musically. It felt good to be reminded of that – and to hear the singular “U2 sound” again in all its majesty.