Tuesday, September 15, 2009

360 Degrees of U2

So... back in April, it was my birthday. My husband, who's the WORST with surprises (he can't keep a surprise to save his life), decided to surprise me with the mother of all gifts: he'd secured me tickets to the opening night of U2's North American tour, complete with wristbands to the inner "Red Zone" circle surrounding the stage, the flight, a hotel, AND a friend to go with (you all know her on here as fb). While sometimes his job drives me nuts, it has its perks -- he's a golf writer and a music journalist, so if he's not flying around the world to play a course and review it, he's flying across the country to interview Michael Bublé... I'll never forget the night Feist called at dinnertime for him to interview her and I said, "Make it quick, I've gone to a lot of trouble for dinner!" and as he took the phone I thought, sheesh, what is WRONG with me... I've gone from crazy music fan to some shrewish housefrau.

Among his travels, he's become friends with a guy who is one of the heads of LiveNation, the concert promoter who puts on all the gigantic shows. And U2 is one of their bands. One phone call to his buddy, and he had my birthday gift all ready.

So I'm here now to tell you all about my U2 experience. First, I'd been to Chicago just the weekend before to my stepbrother's wedding (pleas to the family to switch it to the second weekend so I could combine it with my U2 excursion went unheeded, dammit) so I'd gotten to the know the lay of the land pretty well. I'd been to Chicago many times, but not recently, so it was nice to get myself oriented the following weekend.

So this past Saturday, I stepped off the plane at Midway Airport with my friend F, and we passed through the security gates after clearing customs (I had the same guy I'd had the week before)... to be faced with about 60 blue-suited security folks all lined up in the foyer. It actually stopped me in my tracks for a second, and you could tell they were rather amused by our faces. Then I leaned over to F and said, "Oh no, they've found you out!" and then thought immediately, "Uh oh... I probably shouldn't have said that in an airport..." but then one of them winked at us and said, "Don't be alarmed." We passed through their midst quickly and as we got out and onto the shuttle bus, I joked, "Maybe U2 were on the next flight... this is, after all, the airport where private jets land." F went nuts, thinking maybe this could be true, and then to add to it the shuttle bus driver made a comment about how U2 had landed at Midway Airport. As we got off the bus, F made a beeline to the driver to find out if it had, in fact, been at the same time as our plane, but it turns out they'd arrived on Thursday.

So now it was off to the Park Hyatt to pick up the tix, where my husband's friend was staying with the band (eeee!) and where he was leaving the tickets at the concierge's desk for me. I knew where it was, because it was about a block away from the hotel I'd stayed at the weekend before. We came up the same street, turned the corner, and this is what I saw:

People were EVERYWHERE. For half a second I thought, "Ooh, was there an accident?" before realizing no, they knew where the band was staying, and knew they'd have to come out of there at some point! Cops everywhere, security lining the building... and I had a legitimate reason to actually go in. What to do? I went in. We walked over to the front desk, I gave my name, then tried my husband's name, then tried spelling my name... turns out the last name had been misspelled (according to them... when I saw the envelope, it was spelled correctly, I just think they weren't reading the handwriting correctly or something). The funny thing is, there were a bunch of people staying at the Park Hyatt who were loitering in the lobby with digital cameras, sort of looking around in a "Doo doo dooo... hm... I wonder what I should do today. I could... go out? Or I could stand here? Hm. I just don't know... maybe I'll stand here. I'll turn my camera on, too. You never know when I might see a vase with a pretty flower in it." Har.

So F and I tried to make conversation and wander away from the desk while they looked for the envelope, thinking the longer it takes them to find it, the better our chances of actually seeing the guys up close. No such luck... they found it (dammit!) and then they wanted my ID, which I'd left at the hotel near the airport (double dammit!) but I explained I didn't have it, and spelled the name of the guy who'd left it for me (it's a tough name and difficult to spell, but I'm an EDITOR, for god's sakes... I don't get these things wrong) and luckily, she handed it off. :)

(By the way, that wasn't the only time I was asked for my ID! I stopped at a Walgreen's because my ragweed allergies were acting up a bit and I'd left my Reactine at home, so I went in and they had a pkg with only 5 Claritin in it, which is what I wanted, but you had to go up to the counter to get them, so I did, handed them the slip of paper and they asked for my ID. F had hers, so she handed it over and they said no, sorry, they needed a PASSPORT. WHAT?! It's frickin' ALLERGY medication, and it's over-the-counter. No can do, they said... this is a Canadian license (oh well, excuse me) and they needed the prime minister to verify she was actually who she said she was or something... eventually she was able to show a passport card she also had on her, and they handed it over. I politely asked, "Why all the fuss for allergy medication?" as the female pharmacist rang up the order, and she said, "There's an ingredient in there that you can use to make crystal meth." Uhhh... WHAT???!!... I think those were actually my exact words. She pointed out the ingredient, again apologized for the hassle, and said, "It's too bad that some people want to fry their brains, and then innocent people like yourself who sincerely need some cold medication have to go through all of this just to get it." We thanked her, I left... and the pills are still sitting in my purse. I was deathly afraid to take them, thinking there's no way I wanted anything in my body that you put in crystal frickin' meth. And then my husband later told me it's just a stimulant that's in allergy medication that makes it non-drowsy... Sigh.)

So back to my story... now we couldn't really loiter around the Park Hyatt, so we left. We went up the street, came back, the people were still there, we grabbed something to eat, came back, people were still there. Amused, I called my husband and asked if he'd heard from his friend, wondering if maybe they were already at the stadium and maybe these fans were waiting for nothing. My husband said no, he'd actually JUST gotten off the phone with him talking about something else, and the guy was there in the hotel with the band, so they were definitely still there. But honestly, at that point F and I figured the band would make a beeline from the hotel to their car and wouldn't hang about, so we didn't, either. I hope the fans actually got to see the guys, because it would suck they'd waited that long for nothing.

So I mapped out how we'd take the transit to Soldier's Field, and we started heading along the Mile looking at the shops (all of which I'd hit the weekend before, my poor credit card knows all too well) and then hit some landmarks, and kept walking, and walking, and before we knew it we were at Millennium Park with the Bean (if you haven't seen it, it's a lot of fun... it's a mirrored sculpture where you walk up and take a picture of yourself all distorted and looking squat and fat, but you end up with the skyline of Chicago behind you). Unfortunately all of the skyline pics I took had F in them, and she probably wouldn't want me to post them here, so all I have is this one shot of me close up with bad hair that the Chicago humidity made all crazy. ;)

Anyway, I'm being long-winded (what else is new? my readers say to themselves...) We eventually decided we were over halfway to Soldier's Field, we might as well walk the entire way. By the time we got to the stadium we joined massive crowds of people all coming at the same time. Snow Patrol were already into their set, but I'm not a huge fan, so I wasn't sad that I was missing anything.

Soldier's Field, if you haven't been there, is MASSIVE. Absolutely huge. And yet it was dwarfed in the presence of the gigantic stage set-up that U2 had with them. My husband's friend had emailed him months before it was released to the public, telling him his mind will be blown when he sees it. And my mind... was blown. Now, typically I'm not one to be awed by stage sets (I will admit that I joked at one point before the set that it reminded me of Bowie's Glass Spider, but while that one didn't actually serve much purpose on the tour, this set-up did). I'd rather just watch the band. But it's the functionality of this thing that has to be seen to be believed. (Or believed to be seen, I should say... U2 reference, yay!) This pic is Snow Patrol performing under it. Bono referred to it as the spaceship throughout the set, and it has a 360-degree screen and is surrounded by audience, rather than being at one end with the audience in front of the stage. And unlike another U2 tour (I think it was All That You Can't Leave Behind) where they had fans seated behind them but NEVER PLAYED TO THEM (said one of the fans seated behind them... yes, that was me brooding through the entire show in Toronto), this time the band used the entire setup. You can see the screens, and four giant arms holding it up (inside of which were the spotlight operators) and then there was an outer ring where audience members in the Red Zone were between the stage and it, and the band would walk along that outer ring, and two moving bridges would constantly swing around connecting the front part of the stage to the outer ring. I'm probably not describing it very well, but it was pretty cool, and functional. Unlike some godawful bombastic sets I've seen that are all show, no use, this one was pretty awesome.

Especially if you were standing where I was. How close was I? THIS CLOSE:

WOOOHOOOOOOO!!!!! Oh yeah, baby!! I took that pic, along with many, many others. Oh, you want to see more? OK! Here's Edge being cool:

Here's Bono looking like God:

And then doing it again, as he crossed the bridge toward me:

He came over to my side of the stage, reached down, was met with a sea of hands, moved his hand toward mine... and grabbed it. Oh my GOD I was the woman he was about to pull onto the stage during "With or Without You"!! My legs almost gave out as I was being pulled up, and my friend F was screaming and jumping up and down as I yelled, "Get some good pictures!!" And then he looked into my eyes, and then... Well, then the fantasy was over as the first encore started and my mind snapped back into reality, and they went into With or Without You, the song Bono USUALLY pulls someone up onto the stage for, but instead he was too busy playing with his fancy microphone that dropped from the sky like those old-fashioned ones in boxing rings... though this one looked more like the Target symbol.

As I mentioned earlier, the screens were really amazing. The screen was at the top, as you could see in the picture above, but throughout the set they began to break apart, and the screen at the top became a giant column that looked like it was about to consume the band, and allowed you to still see video footage of them on it while acting as a secondary light show. It was wicked:

Eventually the column collapsed down upon itself and the pieces came together, but it lowered, rather than raised itself, and now the screens were just above the heads of the band. It expanded again later in the set and eventually folded itself back up at the top. I was in awe. I remember discussing with F how difficult it must be to break this thing down after a show and rebuild it (as I said to her, "Sheesh, I hate packing my house to move... how the hell do you mark the boxes when you're packing THAT thing??") Turns out one set was built for the European tour, and two were built for the North American one and they criss-cross shows. So while U2 are playing two nights in Chicago on one set, the second set is already in Toronto being built. Then the set in Chicago is dismantled and taken to Boston, the band plays Toronto and leaves for Boston, and the Toronto one is dismantled, etc. It's a massive, massive undertaking, but it worked for me.

Are U2 the Rolling Stones of today, as one paper suggested the morning after the show, suggesting that fans don't care about new music from them and only want the greatest hits? Perhaps. When they perform "Pride" or "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," you can barely hear the band over the crowd belting it out. When they play the songs from the latest album, you can see a few people singing along, while the rest of them are wondering when they're going to get to "Where the Streets Have No Name." But I think U2 are still a very relevant band. The new material was actually really great stuff live, and while I'm STILL working on that album growing on me, I preferred the songs live.

And then there's the "message" portion of the show. There was a moment where Bishop Tutu addressed the audience from the screens and he began talking about children in Africa who would have died without the help of so many charitable people, but now they'll grow up to be doctors and teachers or whatever they want to be. These little faces flashed across the screens and I know it's meant to manipulate, but there was just something about this gigantic stadium filled to the rafters with fans who were completely silent to listen to this man talk that really choked me up. The children's faces flashed across the screens and I could feel my eyes welling up and I was desperately wiping them away hoping F wasn't noticing what a blubberer I was being. I've seen Bono pontificate from stage before and it's elicited little more than an eyeroll from me (oh really? You want us to urge our government to drop the debt and take it over ourselves through extra taxes, etc.? Well how about you lower that $250 price tag on your damn ticket and THEN I'll have extra money to give to them??) Ahem. But this time it was something different. During "Walk On" Bono talked about Aung San Suu Kyi, whom they wrote the song about, who is Burma's democracy leader but has been under house arrest since 1990, and the ruling militia refuses to give over any power to her or the people. They handed out masks with her face on them to everyone in the Red Zone and we were supposed to wear them during the song (I guess it's meant to be a "put yourself in her place for a minute" sort of thing -- here's a pic of a guy who kept his on the back of his head throughout the show, and was standing right beside me so I felt like someone was staring at me the entire time, which was a little unnerving) and instead most people held the masks above their heads, which I thought was a little more effective. Unfortunately, the floors were littered with her face after, which sort of killed the point for me -- did anyone really get the message if they just chucked the mask away the moment the show was over and allowed everyone to walk on her face rather than think about her plight? But for a few moments, Bono was able to let people know about her, and that was important.

The show was amazing, and yes, I have tickets to the Thursday show in Toronto and I cannot WAIT. Getting out of the Soldier's Field, on the other hand... what a horror show. There was one door -- ONE DOOR -- on the west side of the place and they funneled as many people through that as they could, where there was an iron fence waiting outside of it and we had to slowly shuffle along the fence, through a garden area, around a corner, and meet the traffic coming out of the other side, where they'd then barricaded the otherwise wide exit so it was this tiny thing, and then rather than let people use the sidewalks, they again shuffled us all over to the other side of the street toward the Field Museum so even THAT took forever. No word of a lie: the show was over at 11 (there was a curfew) and we got out of the place and onto the main street that was about 100 feet away at 12:40. It took less time for me to FLY FROM TORONTO than it did to get out of that stadium. What a nightmare.

But otherwise, it was a hell of a birthday gift. Thank you, hubby. :)

So... tell me about your U2 stories. Are you going to this tour?


brent said...

Great write-up! I have GA tickets to the Houston and Dallas shows next month. Two shows in 3 days. It's going to be rough! I'm not sure if you'll know this answer - been having trouble finding it myself - but are they doing a lottery system for the inner circle like the Elevation/Vertigo shows? It looks like stage left and stage right are the red zones, which were mostly sold via auction. But what about the front of the stage? Is it first-come first-served or is it lottery at the time of entry like the last two tours?

fb said...

great write-up, nik ... i almost feel as if i were there! ;p by the way, did you hear they had to re-sod solider field after the concerts?! http://ow.ly/15P9pX

brent: it's just first-come, first-serve for the front of the stage, they're not doing it as a lottery this time around. (i'm a card-carrying member of their fan club, and that's the official word.) most venues will be opening the GA gates around 5 pm or thereabouts.

fb said...

brent, i found the actual link on their official site (forums) that details the GA policy ... here you go:


brent said...

Cool, thanks fb.

I have my doubts that I'll be able to get their early enough to be one of the first 1500 or so. Well, I could, but I doubt my guest each night could. I'm sure there are people there before dawn.

I've been in the club for something like 12 years but the benefits aren't as good anymore. I used to get magazines and more CDs. I did get a ton of Vertigo tickets due to a "computer error" or something. I was supposed to get 4 tickets due to my long-standing membership but was given 8 instead. So I bought 4 in Milwaukee (originally from), 2 in Houston (living now), and 2 in Miami (vacation possibility). I ended up selling the 4 in Milwaukee because I couldn't make it back. Went to the Houston show. Then, as luck would have it, work called me to Florida the week prior to the U2 show in Miami. Thus, I parlayed a business trip into a U2 trip! My buddy sold his pair of Miami tix (for 650 and we split the profit) and we went to the show together. Turned out amazing. Ended up inside the ring, 3rd "row", left side.

Great... now I'm all excited... callin up Youtube.

asiancolossus said...

That looks and sounds amazing Nikki, I'm glad you had a great time...sorry been out of touch on the blog, its been a crazy summer workwise. Hope your summer was fun! I'm just slowly catching up on your blog :) Roland

Joan Crawford said...

How awesome was that!? It was so cool you got to take along your best friend, too. I love surprises and my husband is like yours - surprises just don't happen around here(unless you count the first pregnancy - HAHA, I kid, I kid!) I don't have any U2 stories but I do have a passport story.
I once tried to buy cigarettes years ago with my passport. HAHA, Classy Ladies like me always do this - it's why we have passports in the first place. Anyway, it goes like this:
"We can't accept this as ID".
"What? Are you insane? This is as official as it gets, this gets me into countries - my driver's license doesn't."
"I am sorry, it isn't on the list of approved IDs."
"Do you think you can make an executive decision here and sell me the cigarettes?"
"It isn't on the list."
"How old do I look to you?!"
"I'd say 16."

yourblindspot said...

A-mazing. My jealousy knows no bounds.

I've seen them 3 times myself (twice in '92 on the ZOO TV tour, and then once in '97), and I think it's impossible to say that each time wasn't one of the most electrifying live performances I've ever witnessed.

My favorite U2 live story comes from that second show in September of '92. After having seen them in March and been so blown away, I couldn't resist going back when I found out that they had scheduled more Atlanta shows in the fall (and keep in mind, this is back in the halcyon days when you could still get U2 tickets for a reasonable $35-$40, sigh), but I never expected them to be even better the second time around.

Wrong-o. It was pretty close to the same show, setlist-wise, but they had switched venues from the old Omni Coliseum (RIP, Omni) to the then-brand-spanking-new Georgia Dome, which meant that the size and energy of the crowd increased, and also that U2's enormous stage setup had a lot more breathing room, which in turn made for an even more dynamic experience. To boot, they injected some additional classics and covers into the lineup ('New Year's Day', 'Sunday Bloody Sunday', 'Wild Rover' by The Dubliners, etc.) that whipped everyone into an absolute frenzy. By the time they came out for the encore, we were all virtually exhausted.

And then they did something the brilliance of which I am still trying to wrap my mind around 17 years later. There was a long catwalk at the center of the stage that protruded out into the 'Red Zone' area at the front of the crowd, sort of a way for Bono to wade out into the middle of everyone and make us all swoon with the aura of untouchable coolness he broadcasts like some kind of ageless rock 'n' roll vampire. After several encore songs, all the stage lights were turned down, and they threw a single spot on Bono at center stage. Piped-in music came through the speakers, an accompaniment to which he began crooning Elvis' "Can't Help Falling In Love."

As the song progressed, he slowly walked all the way to the front of that catwalk, and then started walking backwards, perfectly timed so that as the last refrain was sung, he had come right back to where he started, at which point the spotlight went out and the prerecorded music swelled with the last 45 seconds or so of the song. When it ended, all the house lights came up, the band was gone, and the show was over -- no applause, no histrionics, just thousands and thousands of people sitting there in stunned silence, breathless, completely defused, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

The Question Mark said...

Hey, Nik, great post! Glad you had an awesome time in Chicago. The part where Bono touched your hand had me on the edge of my seat. LOL

Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be seeing any U2 shows, myself. I'm not too huge on concerts. MAD Magazine said it best:

There are 3 types of concerts:

1) concerts where the bands lip-sync to their almbums, so you just paid X amount of dollars to hear the same CD you could've heard at home for free.

2) concerts where the bands insist on making their live versions unique, so you just paid X amount of dollars to hear a song that sounds nothing like the one you originally loved, or

3) concerts where the bands encourage heavy audience participation, so you just paid X amount of dollars to hear the guy behind to you screaming the lyrics, off-tune, into your hear.

LOL but still, sounds like you had a ton of fun, which is what counts at the end! And that stage set-up/mechanism looks wicked! I think something like that is the key to an entertaining live performance of any kind.
I think the only concert I would be super gung-ho about seeing is the Beatles. Do they have a show coming...oh, wait, neve rmind. LOL.

Susie said...

Loved reading about your experience. I was there too! BUT all the way at the top of Soldier Field. I must say, even though I was in the nosebleed section, the concert still rocked. The stage was incredible! My husband (who is not a huge U2 fan) even said that the concert was awesome!

Austin Gorton said...

My sister-in-law's boyfriend is a stagehand for U2. He's in charge of one of the four enormous cranes they uses to erect the set. I've seen pictures of the set "in process" and it's pretty amazing.

I take it in Canada they don't hassle you about cold medicines like sudafed either? I live in Minnesota and every time I get a head cold and need some Advil Cold & Sinus or whatever, I have to get it from behind the counter by showing my ID to a pharmacist because of methheads. Lame!