|The Claw towers above Commonwealth Stadium. Alas, my camera died during U2’s opening song.|
Seeing U2 in Edmonton made more sense than, say, seeing them in a suburb of Buenos Aires (or next month in New Brunswick, for that matter). Spending three-and-a-half hours in line to secure a coveted “inner circle” spot made sense at the time; it made less sense when friends who arrived hours afterwards got them as well, but we all still ended up within touching distance of Bono last Wednesday. Let me explain.
As mentioned, this concert should’ve happened almost a year ago–but then Bono threw out his back (and, if the reports are to be believed, nearly lost his ability to walk) and the entire second North American leg of U2’s 360° Tour was postponed. I missed the first leg–work forced me to miss out on a planned trip to Los Angeles–then serendipitously caught up with the tour down south. After La Plata, trekking three hours up to Edmonton felt like crossing the street. The soundtrack for the drive was predictably heavy on Eddie Vedder’s new solo album Ukelele Songs, but also featured the Smashing Pumpkins’ underrated Adore and repeated playings of “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” From Red Deer–halfway between Calgary and Edmonton–I called J-1s to finalize the day’s itinerary, only to discover that our original plan (which had called for watching Rattle and Hum before decamping to Commonwealth Stadium) had been scrapped. Instead, J-1s and his friend Tony had already been to the stadium and gotten places in the general admission line. Thus, I ended up arriving at Commonwealth Stadium slightly before 1pm; I parked illegally on a residential sidestreet, then ran to get a number of my own (#552, some 200 behind J-1s and Tony). I was then told I had fifteen minutes to find a legal parking spot; instead, I drove into downtown Edmonton and found a parkade, from which I changed into concert clothes and rinsed my mouth with Listerine, before boarding the city’s LRT and riding back to Commonwealth Stadium. The process took me an hour; once returned I left tickets at will call for friends of mine who were driving in from Lloydminster later that afternoon (more on them in a second) and picked up one of the great venue-specific t-shirts, then settled into line and waited for doors to open. While this was happening, U2’s techs performed thunderous run-throughs of “Zooropa” and “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” Later, the band themselves soundchecked “Magnificent.”
Edmonton was the first time I’ve conceived of a U2 concert as something communal. To me, the 360° Tour’s biggest success, somewhat ironically, is its intimacy–but still, with a band this big and a tour of this magnitude it’s difficult to imagine a U2 concert as anything other than massive. Spending the afternoon in line with hundreds of other concert-goers offered a different perspective. Friendships were forged, petitions signed, war stories exchanged (this was J-1’s eighth U2 show; for Tony’s fiancee Lindsay it was her first time seeing the band). The line policed itself; one of the leaders (and proud owner of the #1 spot) was Joseph Ahorro, who’s been following the U2 360° Tour around the world and for whom Edmonton was show #48. At 5:30pm, three-and-a-half hours after I’d arrived, the stadium doors opened and the stampede towards the front began. Once we knew we’d have access to the inner circle (the first 2,000 people in line got dibs) our group decided to meet at the back rail on the Edge’s side of the stage. Surprisingly, we had no trouble staking out our preferred location. The inner circle was full, but not packed; J-1s’ experiences in Los Angeles and Vancouver had me anticipating a crush, but personal space was never an issue. To our astonishment, at 7pm my friends from Lloydminster appeared next to us. They’d simply walked up to the inner circle’s ticket-takers and asked if they could still get in.
Of course, at this point there was still nothing to do but to keep waiting. We suffered through the Fray, who were neither suited to the venue nor to the occasion (unlike Muse in La Plata, who were a perfect choice to open for U2). And we grooved to a great pre-show mix that featured Wanda Jackson & Jack White (“Shakin’ All Over”), the Rolling Stones (“Satisfaction”), lots of Arcade Fire (The Suburbs‘ quiter songs got an almost complete airing), and then, finally, “Space Oddity.” The Edge started playing the opening riff to “Even Better Than The Real Thing” from beneath the stage; the first band member to appear was actually Larry Mullen Jr, who began a full-on assault of his floor tom before the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Bono joined him.
The setlist hasn’t evolved much since Argentina. U2’s no longer touring in support of No Line on the Horizon, which came out over two years ago. Instead, the 360° Tour has become a greatest hits show with a couple bones for the diehards (the resurrected “Zooropa,” for instance). A tour this big simply lends itself to a greatest hits format, and it’s hard to fault U2 for trotting out the warhorses in front of 65,000 people (the concert broke Commonwealth Stadium’s attendance record). But the band members still performed like it was the last night on earth, even if the songs are second nature by this point. The high points included “All I Want Is You,” “Miss Sarajevo,” “Zooropa,” the ridiculous dance version of “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” (replete with a “Discoteque” tag, during which Bono was literally feet away from us), “Where the Streets Have No Name” (natch), and “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” which was even better than I remembered it being in La Plata.
Being in the inner circle was surreal; it was as though we were seeing U2 in a club instead of on a $35-million playground. Bono sang part of “Miss Sarajevo” from a bridge that was, quite literally, directly above us (alas, my camera died during the opening song, but my friend got some killer pictures of Bono bathed in light). I didn’t get quite that close in La Plata–I was maybe ten rows away from the concentric walkway surrounding the stage–but my proximity at both 360° shows I’ve seen probably explains much of its effect on me.
It’s hard to reconcile that $35-million stage with U2’s politicking, which was subdued compared to the Vertigo tour but was nonetheless a focal point towards the end of the set. The 360° Tour’s operating costs are astronomical; apparently it’s upwards of $750,000 a day whether there’s a show or not. At this point, U2’s taken the stadium tour about as far as it can possibly go. The only way they’ll top the Claw is if their next tour’s staged on an actual spaceship that flies from one venue to the next. There’s something unseemly about all this excess, especially since we’d been entreated to sign up for Bono’s ONE Campaign earlier in the day. Therein lies the contradiction of U2: heroic social justice crusaders on one hand, shameless rock stars on the other. The space between those two extremes is, I think, where people find their fascination with U2 in general and its lead singer in particular. In spite of all the excess it’s impossible to fault U2 for all the good they ultimately do. I used to struggle with that apparent disconnect; I’m more comfortable with it now, and that’s the reason I’d describe myself as a full-fledged U2 fan instead of a mere observer of their histrionics.
J-1s and I were at his dad’s house within an hour of the show ending. We were both experiencing varying degrees of physical agony. My legs, for instance, felt like I’d imagine they’d feel after carrying me through a marathon. We’d denied ourselves both food and water at the venue, not wanting to sacrifice our spots for something as mundane as a bathroom break, which doubtlessly compounded our physical discomfort Moreover, since we were stationed directly beneath one of the two giant speaker stacks, our ears were quite literally ringing a full twenty-four hours later. I’m no longer as willing to subject myself to this sort of self-denial in the name of a rock n’ roll high–but in the case of U2 in Edmonton it was both necessary and justified. The obvious question, of course, is how Edmonton compared to La Plata. In a way, it didn’t: seeing U2 in Argentina was literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience, akin to seeing Pearl Jam at the Fort William Gardens, whereas I could quite conceivably see U2 at Commonwealth Stadium again in the future. But being that close to the band, not to mention being with friends instead of being all alone in a strange country, was every bit as relevant as the performance itself. I’ll never forget La Plata, but I’ll never forget Edmonton either.
That’s not it for me and the 360° Tour: I still have the wrap-up performance in Moncton ahead of me. I’m not expecting the show to change much before then…but if the band’s as good as it was in Edmonton, and if our travelling caravan’s able to get close to the stagae, I know I’ll walk on (as it were) from Magnetic Hill feeling like I’ve witnessed something special. Something even better than the real thing.