U2 - “Innocence And Experience Tour” - Turin Alpitour – 4+5 September 2015
Every idea begins somewhere. With a Lightbulb in your head. Every moment of genius is a lightbulb moment. And for U2's umpteenth tour (and 1,901st live show), it starts and ends with a lightbulb.
Not being able to 'sell' a new album by 'giving it away', that is, simply invading everyone's iPhone in a desperate act of corporate hubris, U2 sidestep their biggest crippling hurdle neatly : the curse of being painfully obsessed with sales, size, relevancy, popularity, success ; mistaking number for importance, volume for value, market penetration for communication. Would you rather be liked by 10,000,000, or loved by a tenth of that?
What is it to be an artist? Is it to connect to others? Break down walls Or is success being able to have freedom? And, after 40 years, if this isn't what you want, why do it? It starts with an idea. Everything does. Every life. Every action. Every kiss.
The future needs a big kiss. In many ways, U2 don't have to do this. Just rock up, play some songs, don't think about it. But they do. And with “Innocence and Experience” they have a show that, for me, rivals PopMart in power, scale, and effectiveness. The show draws together seemingly disparate songs from their career, and pulls them all together to create a loose, David-Lynch style narrative through the journey of life. In many ways, the stage is set before the band take the stage – the pre show music (which varies night to night), is a map of their influences. With just one song in the pre show playlist being less than 20 years old, the rest is history. Talking Heads, Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, The Clash – and for a band that wish to be relevant, the lack of newer stuff either from themselves in the main set (with only 3-4 songs from 1994-2013), or their influences, is a little disheartening.
But this is about how the past and the future co-exist together. The old, and the news. About how we look at the past from the lens of now, and how who we were and what happened when shapes the here, the now.. and the next. It's a narrative built around lyrical content and imagery – both real (a lightbulb, a wall), and symbolic, that sits inside the shows and around them.
For the first time, U2 feel nostalgic. From an artistic perspective, this show – the concept, and execution – of an older soul looking back is fascinating. Life can only be lived forwards, and understood backwards. Like any artist, the fact is, at 55, U2 are probably nearer the end than the beginning, and it's a realisation that shot through nearly every line of last years “Songs Of Innocence”.
They open with “The Miracle Of Joey Ramone”. The concept locks into place, thematically the show about The Idea ; symbolised with a huge Lightbulb that hangs above the stage, which becomes a key part of the show : when Bono sings “I woke up the moment when the miracle occurred / when I heard the song that made some sense of the world”.. and we've all felt like that. If you've ever loved music, film, a book, a line in a poem, a painting, you've had that moment – where you see the world in a different light, and you can never be exactly the same again. The song changes the world, could change my world, makes sense of the world, your world, and how we look at the world. For the first time since the risible “Rattle And Hum” U2 are being open about being fans, as much as any of us – and it's no coincidence that Adam Clayton tends to wear t-shirts of bands he grew up listening to to clearly signpost that it wasn't just The Ramones, but also The Clash, Joy Division, and Blondie. The lightbulb above glows, with The Ramones as the stating point, and a trio of loud, mostly old classics (“Electric Co.”, “Out Of Control”, “Vertigo” and “I Will Follow”) show clearly that from the moment they heard the bands of youth, they found something, and always tried to find their way back to where they started, to connect between who they were and who they are, and where they're going.
I know it's easy to hate U2, because of ,well, Tax, and the fact they are the musical wing of some touchy feely White Liberal Guilt, the Humanitarian, Evangelical branch of The Church of Rock, but dammit, they're a better artistic bet than most bands, with more substance and depth that the majority of their peers, the competition, and the younger bands. Hardly any bands gets to their age and are still putting out any music, let alone some of the best of their lives.
In the midst of “Vertigo”, Bono swings the lightbulb, a statement : That was the idea, now lets see what we can do with this. The idea isn't just a copy, but something new, the way they see the world. Song four is “I Will Follow”. And whilst the link may not be apparent, each song is chosen for how it fits with the ones around it, and “I Will Follow” is a key song, a song about a child following his guide unconditionally in whatever path is necessary.
The next song is “Iris”, named after Bono's mother, (but also, cruically, the Iris is the eye, and the title was chosen with no small significance around the opening of the eye, the moment where the pilgrim was blind and now they can see). It's also the most effective hymn to the loss of a parent since “Death Disco”.
Iris stands in the hall, she tells me I can do it all, the way a parent will encourage and nurture.
Martin Amis has a theory, of Premature Death Awareness Syndrome, that ties in with great, driven artists, seeing how limited life could be, they become compelled to create. Aware that from a far too young age, the fragility of life – and in “Iris” - a song I personally connect with greatly for my mother died young as well – Bono expresses the lineage of time, the light of something in your eyes, took a thousand years to get here, of the hopes and fear of the generations before us, and each one of our parents parents parents parents is in us, somewhere, even if it is the corner of a smile, and we are all just passengers in the tide. All of us are individuals and part of a mass, and every meaning is different to each one of us, alone but together.
And then the music stops, and he sings “Hold me close, like someone you might know”. The moment you first hold your own child is life changing, – someone you don't know, but love and care for (unless you're proper fucked up) - is powerful and also, powerless. Of course, every child is wanted, but wanting alone isn't enough. The reasons have to be right. Above the band, footage of Bono's mother, who died when he was 14, at a wedding is shown – and she is dressed in lemon. (this is the same footage that inspired the bands 1993 song of the same name). At this point, the bands huge 100 foot video screen comes to life, with stars connecting to each other in the sky, which draws both to the idea of the star that provides light (from a lightbulb), and the stars of the heavens, where in mythology, the spirits of the dead live. It's a simplistic symbolism, but meaningful above and beyond the bluster of mere stadium pop. Everything connects, every sign and symbol meanings something, and like most of U2's shows, the themes are built on visual and lyrical metaphors, ideas, all of which together somehow combine and interlock to a sum much greater than the parts. The seperation of mother and child, the moment where you can't be a boy anymore but have no choice to be anything other a man, that you can't go home anymore, that moment changes our world forever.
There's a greater vision between all of this, that of Innocence and Experience, the loss of one, the gain of another, making sense of history and past / present / future. The heart of this show comes in a five song segment, where the band drift from “Iris” to “Until The End of The World”, with “Cedarwood Road” the first obvious nostalgic song, named after the location of Bono's childhood home, exploring how youth and home influence us, shape us, make us who we are, how we think,how we feel. I can see with hindsight how traumatic experiences change us, form us, make me more or less, make me who I am. Bono sings from within his youth, inside a video screen covered in flowers, phone boxes, and David Bowie, a clear homage – you can't forget where you come from, or you are lost. Knowing where you are in the world involves knowing where everything else is around you, and how you can be lost without a compass, without a map, without a place to call your own – the past, home, family.
It's a difficult show to watch for many reasons, one of the main ones is that there is almost too much to watch, and difficult to know where to look, as the stage is 150 feet long, moves, and the band themselves are always rotating somewhere around the stage. Bono spends at least half the show on catwalks or on a second stage, the band themselves spend time moving around, and the visuals add to the concept and illuminate the message. As the show progresses it becomes more and more adventurous. The band links a low key, somewhat exhausted “Sunday Bloody Sunday”- played in the context of the Omagh Car Bombings of childhood that I still remember, with a sense of empty, frustrated weariness, to the subsequent “Raised By Wolves” which details a long list of regrettable, avoidable conflicts – as if somehow, the eternal battle (“is conflict inevitable?”) is between war and peace, innocence and experience, the powerful and the powerless, fear and hope : and in the midst of singing about The Trubbles, the venue is filled with strewn paper thrown from the ceiling – directly inspired by a eyewitness report of a newspaper stall blown to pieces by an explosion and a sky filled with paper. And the papers strewn are torn up books, from Alice In Wonderland, and the Psalms, to Ulysses. Before the end of “Raised By Wolves”, it's already an effective, powerful, rich piece of work. And what else is there to say? This isn't a gig, it's a spectacle, a marrying of sound and vision and imagery to convey something much bigger than mere video screens and fancy lights.
Well, when you're Bono, there's always more to say. A huge lighbulb swings from the screen, as a huge video Bono sings to his creative foil of The Edge, and his hands reach on the screen to him, as he sings 'I reached out for the one I wanted to destroy'. Not all ideas are good ones ; “Until The End Of The World” closes the first set, as waves and yellow lines consume the images of he pas few songs, the houses, the lightbulbs, destroying all around it, picking up the relics of Cedarwood Road, cars, boxes, and tearing to pieces the world of childhood in an avoidable disaster of conflict. Some ideas bring the end of the world.
For an hour, it's a powerful, rich, and undoubtedly ambitious narrative, similar to an art film, rich in abstract symbolism and concepts. As Edge peels out feedback, the screen descends to the floor, drapes land, and the venue is cut in two by a recreation of the Berlin Wall : the venue is described as North and South side, divided by the stage that runs to near enough the wall of the venue. Thematically, the move was conceptually seamless, to a figurative, actual division, representing the river that divides the bands hometown, and the wall that divided Berlin. The ones keeping us in, and keeping them out.
Ostensibly an intermission, “The Fly” sees the Berlin Wall strewn with symbols – and a song that was created in the immediate confusion of the fall of the wall in Berlin – with the concept of a wall symbolising the idea as a destructive force. The wall is disguised with a scattershot graffiti restaging of the bands 1992 tour, all flashing words and phrases.
The second half of the main set is a straightforward experience, opening with the relatively obscure non album single “Invisible” : the band play from inside the screen, hidden by video, 'breaking out' at certain points, on occasion. Being hidden by the huge screens, the song works on a number of levels, a rallying cry of optimism and opportunity from the eyes of the deprived : we exist in a world of cruelty, where human beings with hopes and thoughts and dreams are frequently viewed as meaningless, as non-persons, as objects to be manipulated and misused for profit, or to be objectified as monsters to be scapegoated in the current refugee crisis. I'm more than you know, I'm more than you see here, you don't see me – but you will, I am not invisible.
From a personal perspective, I don't necessarily need the approval of others. But there have been times, and many of them, where I have felt invisible, neglected, unwanted – much like an ancient episode of The Outer Limits – be it, invisible to potential lovers, or taken for granted or ignored by employers, or where I ceased to exist as a matter of concern to certain people, where I was taken, abused, thrown away, treated as if I were a disposable toy or an object to be discarded with casual cruelty. And that hurts.
But I always had something nobody else did, control over my reactions, and control over who I was : even a line as basic as “I won't be me when you see me again” is loaded with a potency around freedom to define our own identity. It's a cry of freedom, of liberation, and a fierce rejection of “I am no longer my father's son” is all around stepping out into being myself, no longer a product of influences and predecessors, breaking out from the cages others put us in. It's the sound of a person breaking free of their situation, and being, at last, visible, defining themselves by their own terms. It's the sound of self-realisation. Of setting yourself free by redefining the parameters of success. Chase someone else's dream and you'll always fail. Chase your own and you'll escape.
The next few songs are shorn of any thematic basis, as such - “Even Better Than The Real Thing” (performed on the European mainland for the first time in 18 long years), and “Mysterious Ways” begin a short selection of several hits : Night #1 gets “Elevation” and “Ordinary Love”, Night #2 gets “Desire” (performed by the band and four members of the crowd on extra drums, guitars, and vocals), and “Angel Of Harlem”. It's a casual tossing off of anthems that most bands would give their eye-teeth that shows U2 are, if nothing else, a ruthlessly effective and talented machine. You may not like them, but you can't pretend they aren't damn bloody good at what they do.
With the theme of home, belonging, ideas, growing up, innocence and experience, the brief interlude in the middle of 'hits', there's normally a traditional darker second-half, and in this case, the band have prepared a strong, powerful set of material from disparate sources, to create a sometimes painful, often hopeful, hymn to humans. There is no them, there is only us, we are one, but not the same.
With “Every Breaking Wave”, “October”, “Bullet The Blue Sky”, “Zooropa” and “Where The Streets Have No Name” in a powerful sequence. Two of those songs - “October” and “Zooropa” are on my 'holy grail' of songs ; both being played in Europe for the first time since 1987 and 1993 respectively. Placed in order, the narrative is around some kind of seperation, of tidal waves, and linked to in “October”/”Bullet The Blue Sky” songs around the end of summer, the beginning of a human winter, and, with “Bullet” - which hasn't been so powerful in over 20 years, Bono and Co. take their usual hectoring about human rights, justice, equality, and that stuff, and deliver a genuinely powerful piece of musical polemic that is surprisingly touching. “Every Breaking Wave” - an old song from the late 2000's that has been resurrected and revamped into a tender and touching torch song about seperation on the seas, slots in seamlessly into “October”.
“October” is probably the song that was my entry point. Coming from the rather turgid, mid-80's 'white flag' phase of their career, it was also the song that on the ancient 'Under A Blood Red Sky' VHS tape indicated to me that they were more than just an OK rock group. It's a song that band haven't performed in Europe since 1987 (and not at all until July 2015). Matched with haunting drone footage of Kobane, Gaza, that has been shelled into non-existence by war and conflict, it's a repurposed hymn of the pointless division between humans caused by fear and greed, and a plea to all humans to see that if the human race is only won if we all win. Kingdoms Rise And Kingdoms Fall. We Go On. And On.
“Bullet The Blue Sky” is a song that may have once, been a live highlight, but having been played at every show for 20 years, it quickly became tired and, by the 2005-2006 tour, had become a hollow memory of what it once was. Here, now, it is back on fire. Tonight, it's probably the most savage it's been in two decades, a furious battle of wits, armed with some effective visuals – riot police charging protestors, a European star made of 13 drowned refugees in yellow jackets, and text. BAIT. SNARE. TRAP.
The refugee crisis is a clear sign of the abject failure of Europe, - and particularly as a Britlander – the embarrassing incompetence of Prime Ministers in treating all humans are equal and valid. The message in the song is clear, we are all humans, all valid, all are equal, and by the way – they don't want to leave their homes and come over here to steal our jobs, they want to leave the war : working as an cash-in-hand 24-people-in-4-bedrooms immigrant on hire-by-the-day labour gangs with a confiscated passport and no rights isn't exactly fun ; it's just more attractive than living in a bombsite and a warzone.
That child, drowned, on an empty beach. And the thousands that never made it to the shore.
Sure, Bono's speechifying now, but when he yells through a microphone of European Stars “I'm not dangerous, I'm in danger” - it would take a hard heart to see them as as vermin, a swarm, an invading force. These are humans who need our help. Not parasites to be exterminated with machine guns. It's, for a human being with feelings and empathy, hard to see.
It's followed by “Zooropa”, a gentle and low-key version of the title track from their best record, being played for the first time in Europe since 1993. Bono sings carefully 'I have no compass, I have no map, and I have no reasons to get back'. The whole of Zooropa (the album) was around a sense of spiritual displacement, around not belonging in the world around you, and feeling in some way disconnected, and the refugees are the same, without a home, looking for somewhere to belong, a land made not of war. The segue between these songs is not just thematically powerful, or musically inspired, but leads to a sense of joy : “Zooropa” becomes “Where The Streets Have No Name.” : a song about an imaginary homeland to a song about heaven. In the concert context, “Streets” is the song. I mean the song. Every band if they are lucky, get one song that good. U2 got three songs that good on that album alone. The intro turns to a crescendo, the venue bathed in red, lights and 20,000 extremely keen Italians (well, mostly, the nationality of U2's audience is more like an airport than a concert) completely lose their self-control. There's grown men – not me – in tears, children singing the words, and people in wheelchairs waving sticks around, and an alienating sea of iPads and cameraphones recording everything, like some kind of Rock Pope blessing the lepers with an Echobox, three chords, and the truth. Touch me. Take me to the other place.
Thematically, the battle that began on the seas of “Every Breaking Wave” are somehow resolved by “Where The Streets Have No Name”, a song about heaven, paradise, a land where streets don't need signs. It closes with the stars in the sky – hinted at in earlier songs, fading to a vision of light pouring from Joshua Trees. Which kind of make sense. It's followed with “Pride”, which is a sort of humanitarian, United Nations version of “Living On A Prayer”. Aside from a gutpunch line, “One child dead on an empty beach, one life betrayed for this?”, it's a rousing communion singalong.
The main body of the set closes with “With Or Without You” : which is so powerful, because it is so restrained for the most part, with a guitar solo that is a simple two chords strum, and a rhythm which is largely a simple, rigid, minimal, bass and percussion. Also, I finally, finally, finally experience “With or Without You” the way I haven't yet been able to do so in my life : occasionally – about once a year – the band add the extra verse written after the songs release. Tonight, we get it. There's a audible gasp amongst some fans, because it's glorious, and rare as hell. I won't tell how many U2 shows I've done over the years, but it's a lot – and it's also my first time for “Shine Like Stars”. Yeah, this means something. I've wanted to hear it with my own ears since I first heard it in 1987.
The final part of the show is somewhat less obvious ; as if the audience somehow were able to get the band to realise they've been hectored about war and refugees enough, thank you – with a triple hit of “City Of Blinding Lights”, “Beautiful Day”, and a speech about HIV combined with a cover of Paul Simon's “Mother And Child Reunion”, that closes the loop back to the beginning of the show where Bono sang about the death of his own mother – maybe all this dodgy stadium rock could have been avoided. Dependent upon the night, you get either “One” or “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For”, both as a kind of campfire singalong.
Aware that this isn't a review as such, more an examination of the tours thematic vision and powerful imagery, I could if you prefer, dissect the performance (yes, the music is live, because there's definitely some wrong notes and some missed lyrics), the audience, the experience : that will come with other shows. What we have now in “Innocence And Experience” is U2's most engaging and cohesive show yet, a fascinating state of self-reflection on the here and now and the there and then, and how we all understand our past only in the context of the present and the future. Every idea begins with a lightbulb, turn off the dark.
The Miracle Of Joey Ramone
Electric Co (night #1)
Out Of Control (night #2)
I Will Follow
Song For Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Raised By Wolves
Until The End Of The World
Even Better Than The Real Thing
Elevation (night #1)
Desire (night #2)
Angel Of Harlem (night #2)
Ordinary Love (night #1)
Every Breaking Wave
Bullet The Blue Sky
Where The Streets Have No Name
With Or Without You
City of Blinding Lights
Mother And Child Reunion
One (night #1)
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (night #2)