Tuesday 24 April 2018

Band on the run: Downsized U2 reconnect with their fans

U2 snubbed stadia in favour of arenas for their latest tour, and the more intimate setting has helped revitalise the band. And now, in order to play their home town, they've had to scale down yet further.

Intimate: Tickets for the U2 gigs at the 3Arena go on sale this Monday.
Intimate: Tickets for the U2 gigs at the 3Arena go on sale this Monday.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Quick question for all U2 fans, and no conferring: when was the last time the band were on tour and played indoors in Ireland? If you said New Year's Eve, 1989, congratulations. The venue was the Point Depot, Dublin, and Bono and friends were on the Lovetown tour, in support of the Rattle and Hum album. The previous evening, on December 30, the frontman famously announced the group would have to "go away and dream it all up again".

A lot of water has gone under the U2 bridge in the intervening 25-and-a-bit years, especially when it comes to the live experience. Each of the five tours they've subsequently done - Zoo TV, Popmart, Elevation, Vertigo and 360 - have been held in stadia (with the exception of Elevation, which played to 160,000 people over two dates at Slane Castle).

But now, they're returning with six shows on this island, and all of them are indoors. The dates were confirmed on Wednesday morning with the first two taking place in Belfast's SSE Arena and the final four in Dublin's 3Arena. The former holds 11,000 people, the latter 14,000 - but that's about as intimate as you'll get on a U2 tour nowadays.

Their last tour, 360, in support of the poor-selling (by their standards) No Line on the Horizon album, was the highest grossing in rock history. It took in $750m and visited some of the world's biggest stadia, but it was also among the most expensive ever staged. Three enormous stages, dubbed The Claw by the band, were built to ensure a smooth run from city to city, but it was an onerous undertaking.

It was perhaps inevitable that they would scale down the production significantly when it came to touring their next album and as the record in question, Songs of Innocence, is the most personal and intimate they have ever done, the decision to take it indoors was not a strange one.

But scaled down does not mean stripped back for the U2 of 2015. The arena shows have been pushing the envelope when it comes to visuals. "It's really quite something," says Hot Press writer Olaf Tyaransen, who attended opening night in Vancouver. "It's incredibly theatrical and utilises far more of the arena than just the stage part. It means that more of the audience can feel that they are intimately involved in the show.

"The way the screen is used for 'Cedarwood Road' is really brilliant and I think it will be very effective in Dublin. My grandmother lived two streets away from there in Glasnevin, and when I looked at those houses on screen it really brought me back to the time I spent with her."

The tour has attracted some of the best reviews of the band's career, which must have been gratifying for a four-piece who have experienced their fair share of criticism, bad luck and heartache over the past 12 months.

"They got such criticism for giving away Songs of Innocence for free on iTunes," Tyaransen says, "and yet millions were happy to download it." With more than 80m of the 500m Apple customers who received the album choosing to download, some have suggested it's among the most listened to albums of all time. Those irked by the give-away were unlikely to have been U2 fans anyway and there's every chance that some of those who received it may have been turned on to the band for the first time. "There was this perception that because the album was given away for free it wasn't very good," Tyaransen says. "Some people judged it without listening to it, but it's a really fine album and [opening song] 'Every Breaking Wave' is one of the best songs they've ever done."

The bad luck arrived in the form of multiple injuries sustained by Bono in Central Park, New York, when he was knocked off a bicycle. His arm broke in four places, making it unlikely he will ever play guitar again. It took him six months of recuperation just to get to the point where he could think about the business of being the live-wire frontman of one of the world's biggest bands again.

Then, just days before the tour got under way last May, Larry Mullen's father - Larry Snr - died. It lent an emotionally charged feel to opening night, and one that could have ended very badly had the Edge fallen more awkwardly off the 'ramp' than he did. The footage went viral, but the guitarist's ego was the only thing to be hurt.

Neil McCormick, a childhood friend of Bono's and the music critic with The Daily Telegraph, says the Innocence and Experience tour finds U2 "as big, absurd and thrilling" as ever: "The sight of a giant King Kong-sized LED Bono reaching out to encompass bandmates performing inside a caged stage suspended from the ceiling might suggest that U2 no longer even know how to think small.

"What they do understand is intimacy, the art of making things personal. For what was effectively a completely over-the-top slice of state-of-the-art rock theatre, it was also a performance with real heart, which reached out to an eager audience and fully involved them in U2's strange and actually rather wonderful world."

And yet this "strange and rather wonderful world" may look slightly different when the band hit Dublin. The Edge raised concerns about the difficulty of finding a venue in the Republic that can accommodate the elaborate stage set up and while the SSE in Belfast holds fewer people, the way in which the stage and auditorium are configured makes it easier to replicate the sort of show fans in North America and the continental Europe would have seen so far.

Despite the limitations of the 3Arena's configuration, it is believed that the band and their crew have been planning specially modified stage productions for their hometown shows for quite some time.

Even before they went on the road, Bono was anticipating a very different experience for Dublin. In one of the last interviews conducted by Tony Fenton, he had this to say to the late broadcaster: "We decided, let's do something we're not going to do anywhere else in the world. Let's create the most intimate show we've ever done. Let's focus, try everything else out. It'll be risky, but it's gonna be interesting."

Tickets go on sale on Monday and are likely to be snapped up within a minute. Assuming that the capacity of the 3Arena doesn't have to be reduced in order to accommodate a special stage show, the total number of tickets for Dublin will be 56,000.

That's considerably less than the 80,000 that Croke Park can handle for one event and it was GAA headquarters that hosted the Dublin dates on the last two tours as well as big hometown shows for the Unforgettable Fire tour of 1985 and the Joshua tree tour of 1987.

Bono's suggestion to Tony Fenton that the shows would be as intimate as any they've "ever done" is certainly applicable to the U2 that went stratospheric after their remarkable performance at Live Aid in 1985, but doesn't stand up when one thinks of the smaller shows that the band played in its formative years.

Among the now defunct venues that Bono et al played to support of debut album Boy was McGonagle's on South Anne Street, just off Grafton Street.

Intriguingly, this venue was the inspiration for a track on the deluxe edition of Songs of Innocence called 'The Crystal Ballroom' - its old name and a place where his parents Bob and Iris used to dance in the 1950s.

It's one of several songs that have a very strong Irish, and Dublin, resonance on the album, not least 'Cedarwood Road' which ruminates on Bono's teen years and 'Raised by Wolves' which explores the fallout from the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings [see panel].

"Bono turned 50 a few years ago and that's often a time when people take stock of their lives and look back," Tyaransen says.

He's certainly done that on his band's latest album, and the 'intimate' Irish shows will give him an ideal opportunity to take a stroll down memory lane.

Dublin bombing that shaped the young Bono

U2 have not been afraid to write politicised songs that tackle controversial and painful subjects and 1983's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' is a lasting commentary on the futility of terrorism north of the border. But it's 'Raised by Wolves', a standout track on their latest album, that truly cuts to the heart of a devastating day in recent Irish history - the loyalist bombings of Dublin and Monaghan on the same afternoon in May 1974.

Bono was just 14 years old at the time and the loss of life in his home city affected him greatly. Twenty seven people perished on Talbot Street, Parnell Street and South Leinster Street in the worst terrorist attrocity to visit the Republic. "On any other Friday I would have been at this record shop, just down the corner," he told Rolling Stone last year, "but I cycled to school that day."

1974 was a tough year for the singer as his beloved mother, Iris, died from a brain aneurysm. The album's most personal track 'Iris' finds him singing from the heart: "Hold me close, don't let me go."

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