Back to Magnetic Hill

I’ve never really written about a Pantheon Concert. Firstly, I’ve only seen four of them. Secondly, the previous two had me in such a lather that writing about them would’ve been a disservice to the memory (Stuff and Nonsense didn’t even exist when Pearl Jam played Buffalo in 2003). However, not writing about U2’s 360° Tour finale would’ve been a disservice to Ambassador Gordo and his wifey-thing and to my Fetching Blonde–and so exactly one year later I’m putting all reservations aside and giving you 2,000 words on one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. It’s long-winded; it’s predictably over-the-top. You have been warned.

***

It was raining when we arrived in Moncton; it was pouring by the time we got to Magnetic Hill, where we’d reserved a $25 parking space a short (or, well, “short”) walk from where the Claw would be taking its final bow. I’d chased the U2 360° Tour around the globe, missing out on Los Angeles and Vancouver before finally catching up with it in Argentina and Edmonton. Given all that, trekking out to the east coast to see U2 play a makeshift venue at the bottom of a very big hill seemed strangely logical. Our original plan had been to get to Magnetic Hill early and try for one of the coveted inner circle spaces, but the rain, along with a line-up that was thousands of people long, had us opting instead for the warmth of our rental vehicle. The rain started letting up an hour after we arrived, and so we changed into shorts and sandals–this turned out to be a brilliant decision, by the way–and hiked towards the venue. The less said about our actual entrance, the better. What matters is we made it in without getting arrested, and once our heart rates decelerated we went to stake out a location.

As mentioned, the original plan was to get inside the inner circle. The alternative, concocted by a Fetching Blonde who doesn’t do well in big crowds, was to go all the way to the back of Magnetic Hill–but since the entire back half of the venue had been converted into a beer garden we decided to get as close to the front as we could. The venue was soaked; the consequence of all that rain wouldn’t be evident till later, when Magnetic Hill turned into a giant mudslide, but between the rain, the beer garden (which was packed), and the merch tent (ditto) the front of the stage wasn’t as crowded as we’d anticipated. And no sooner had we begun to get settled then Ambassador Gordo and I looked at one another, shrugged “we’re here,” and went to investigate the inner circle. The doors had been open for two hours. There was no way we were getting in…was there?

A note about the stage: the entrances to the inner circle were tucked in around the back–and crucially, behind the Red Zone VIP section, which presumably led most casual concertgoers to assume it was restricted to VIP ticketholders. It wasn’t: inner circle spots were available to anyone holding a GA ticket, and when we asked the security guard if there was still room he simply looked down at his clicker and then nodded his head. We ran back and got the girls (who were signing up for the ONE campaign) and then the four of us sprinted towards the entrance. Our tickets were scanned, we were given an orange wristband, and then we gleefully skipped inside. It was tight–we were two hours late, after all–but we managed to secure a decent vantage point and…well, we were in the inner circle for the final night of the 360° Tour. I need to stress that the inner circle wasn’t just about proximity to the band: it was about being inside, literally inside, the show itself. The 360 stage was massive, but it was also in constant motion, shifting people’s vantage points, moving the band’s members from one end of the stage to the other, and at a couple points in the show having the audience, quite literally, underneath Bono (“Miss Sarajevo”). It was an overwhelming experience of motion, visuals, and volume. I might’ve gotten a better overall sense of the show in La Plata, where I was stationed about ten rows back from the outer ring…but I’ve never, never, experienced a concert the way I did the two times I saw the 360° Tour from the inner circle. There’s simply no way of quantifying it; either you were there and you know what I mean or you’re dismissing this as my usual sort of blogging bluster.

Anyway. We were unmoved by Carney, whose singer Reeve Carney’s the star of Bono and the Edge’s Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Arcade Fire followed with an astonishing command performance that totally redeemed their disappointing Dartmouth set two nights earlier. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” remains an odd choice for a closer, but the version of “Wake Up” that preceded it was nothing short of ecstatic. Which set the stage, one last time, for U2–and if there was any doubt the band understood the occasion then the pre-show mix (which began with “The Final Countdown” and included one goodbye song after another) would’ve ended it. The wait was excruciating. The path (such as it was) to the washrooms had turned into a mudslide. My Fetching Blonde and I basically rappelled one another up, then held hands on the way back for fear of slipping and falling and drowning. Like I said, the cumulative effect of all that rain was making Magnetic Hill into the world’s most populous mudslide; thank goodness, then, for the corrugated metal under our feet, not to mention the rain holding off. A pair of F-18s started doing fly-overs to rapturous response from the audience. The anticipation was stifling. And then finally, one last time, “Space Oddity” blared over the PA.

Once again the Edge began playing “Even Better Than The Real Thing” from below the stage; Larry Mullen, Jr. was first to appear, followed by the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Bono, who bounded to the front of the stage and sang the song’s opening verse (“Give me one more chance and you’ll be satisfied”) with suitable gravitas. The opening all-Achtung Baby quartet (“Even Better Than The Real Thing” was followed by “The Fly,” “Mysterious Ways,” and “Until the End of the World”) was introduced to the 360 set prior to U2’s headlining slot at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, and it worked so well it stuck around for the rest of the tour (“The Fly” was a particular highlight). Otherwise, there wasn’t much to distinguish Moncton setlist-wise from other 360 shows. “The Ballad of Springhill” was surprising, although not shocking given the location; meanwhile, Bono improvised a moving verse at the end “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” about the tour’s ending, but beyond that the main set was more-or-less standard issue. What made Moncton so special was the crowd, the sense of occasion, the band leaving everything out on that stage…and for the four of us, the culmination of a great vacation out east. Watching 75,000 people elevate to “Where the Streets Have No Name” from the front of Magnetic Hill is one of the most awesome sights I’ve seen at a concert. All night, we were veritably overwhelmed by a communal sense of joy.

The second encore began with the usual “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” (still my number one highlight of the show), a slightly-less-than-perfunctory-sounding “With or Without You,” and a moving “Moment of Surrender.” That song was the traditional 360° Tour show closer–I still maintain it should’ve closed the main set and that it didn’t work at all at the end of the night–but afterwards it was clear the band, particularly Bono, wasn’t ready to leave. “Out of Control” was the first (and, indeed, only) song I’d never heard before; it was fun, but it felt out-of-place as a potential closer (and, moreover, seemed to confuse most of the crowd). There had to be another song. But what? “Bad”?

And then the Edge left his side of the stage and grabbed a bass from Adam Clayton’s tech.

“40”! For weeks, a growing segment of the U2 fan community had been clamouring for the return of “40,” which borrows its lyrics from Psalm 40 (“I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry”) and which, for most of the 80s, had been U2’s staple closing number (it was resurrected for the Vertigo tour and closed my first U2 concert; I also recited its chorus at my grandfather’s funeral). This, then, was a special moment for me, but it also brought the 360° Tour full circle. Bono left first, but instead of disappearing he walked to the back of the stage and then turned to face his bandmates. Clayton and the Edge followed suit, leaving Mullen alone on stage. It was Mullen whose opening drum part to “Breathe” got the tour up and running in Barcelona two years earlier–and it was Mullen whose drum beat brought the tour to an end. It was a breathtaking finale.

Afterwards the four members of U2 walked off their giant playground one final time, their arms linked around each other. It was as moving a moment as anything that’d happened during the previous two-and-a-half hours…or during the previous two years, I’d imagine. I know it’s hard to think of U2 in intimate terms, especially when they’ve just finished a tour that cost $750,000 a day to run–but that one gesture underscored the bonds that have kept them together for over thirty years. At the end of the day they’re still boys playing rock n’ roll. The venues are just a lot bigger.

Leaving Magnetic Hill turned out to be an ordeal: it took forty-five minutes to get back to the car (a walk that included, among other things, jumping over a giant ditch that claimed at least one of the people immediately behind us), and we then waited another hour-and-a-half in the parking lot before the roads around the venue re-opened. We rolled into the driveway of Small n’ Bald’s parents’ house in Fredericton just as the clock rolled over to 4:00am, exhausted, delirious, satisfied. The 360° Tour is when I became a U2 fan. I was a skeptic after being introduced to them during the Vertigo era–but No Line On The Horizon, coupled with the spectacular tour that followed, made me into a believer. I’ll see U2 again (and again and again, most likely), but it’s doubtful any of those subsequent concerts will top Moncton. It truly was one of the most special nights in my life as a music fan.

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