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Performance vs. Rock Show

By Collin Souter
(originally published on on 5/31/18)

A debate has sprung up in recent weeks about U2’s set-in-stone set list for the Experience + Innocence Tour. Shouldn’t the band be switching out more songs? Why aren’t they playing (insert song here)? Every day it’s the same show, it’s getting boring. 


It basically has come down to whether U2 should be doing a Theatrical Performance or a straight-up Rock Show. The band have clearly made their choice. After deleting a few songs from the set after their debut in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U2 have settled into a structure that has clearly been more about performance than about cranking out the hits. Nothing from Joshua Tree. No “Mysterious Ways.” Not even a one-off performance of “Bad.” U2 have crafted an uncompromising piece that must be viewed as a whole and not just a collection of songs. As a result, fans who look at setlists day after day have been waiting for a surprise, an out-of-nowhere track that shows U2 have not just settled in. There has been a need for something new to talk about.


And yet, there has been plenty to talk about with the show as it exists now (for example, see Mason Merrit’s OTR piece from a couple weeks ago). Having seen both Chicago shows and the Nashville show, I can honestly say U2 have created their most well thought-out and conceptually coherent show since Zoo TV. It has a clear purpose, a natural arc, a delicate flow that never feels jarring. When fans talk about switching it up and adding more songs in, I cannot fathom where that should happen. Trading out “Gloria” for “Red Flag Day” or “All Because Of You” seems fine enough, but the show must be the show or else it just isn’t. 


Consider that half the show is made up of largely unknown songs. As Matt McGee pointed out on our podcast, anything from the last two albums should be considered a deep cut to the average U2 fan. These songs will probably never enter into the pantheon of classic U2 that will be heard in karaoke bars or played on jukeboxes for decades to come. U2 have to work extra hard to sell these songs to the arena-sized crowd, songs that won’t have much of a life after this tour. On top of that, they throw in “Acrobat,” “Staring At the Sun” and “The Ocean.” Thirteen songs out of 25 are deep cuts. Why would any die-hard fan complain? 


I know, I know. Ticket prices, omitting entire albums, casual fan expectations vs. die-hard fan expectations, etc. All valid arguments to be had, but I feel we need the art form of the conceptual performance as much as the straight-up rock show. I suppose it’s the music fan in me that grew up watching Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense over and over again, thinking “this is how every concert should be.” A three-act structure with properly placed ebbs and flows. I was also introduced at a very young age to rock ‘n’ roll with The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, the granddaddy of concept albums and one that made sequencing into an art form. These informed my perception of rock ‘n’ roll as real art and expression that transcends the medium from just a series of 3-4 minute pieces of music. U2 have always embraced that aesthetic and it’s always been why they take so long to make an album. 


Likewise, performers like David Bowie, Prince, Madonna and David Byrne have always gone out of their way to make sure their shows are not just collections of songs, but journeys the audience can take along with the performer. Talking Heads’ aforementioned Stop Making Sense, often called the greatest concert film of all time, is a concert with a storyline. It’s about an uptight white guy (Byrne) who feels “tense and nervous, can’t relax.” He loosens up as more and more musicians come on stage with him, and especially more so when the stage is populated with largely African American musicians. By the end of the show, he has found a way to cut loose and be bigger than life (hence the Big Suit). It went from one nervous guy with a guitar on a bare stage to a big crescendo of musicians adding to the main character’s personality. Talking Heads could have easily just done a show of great songs, but why stop there when there’s a more interesting idea of presentation to be attempted? That is what U2 are attempting here.


I don’t know of anyone else who does this sort of thing today. Maybe Metallica. Possibly Madonna. Arcade Fire are certainly leaning in that direction. If I’m wrong, I confess ignorance (and please correct me), but U2’s show seems like an anomaly at a time when they have a harder time winning over the critics or having that elusive hit single. Conventional wisdom says that at this stage in their career they have become (gulp!) Dad Rock. Really? Does Dad (or whatever middle-age-plus manifestation you want to use) listen to Songs Of Experience beginning-to-end a lot? Asking a large audience to digest a two-hour performance the same way they might watch a film carries a risk that the band should be lauded for at this point in their career when they could easily just become another tired nostalgia act. 


Of course, it helps that U2 have at their disposal an impressive piece of production with that multi-purpose screen. Were it not for the visuals to help the audience along or to give them a “Wow” factor, U2 would have a much harder time selling this concept show to the crowd. It is to U2’s great credit, though, that the story that gets told in E+I--the near-death, the rebirth, the looking back at old neighborhoods, the willingness to fall from Innocence, the call back home to the wife, our roles in the present-day struggles and the final, tear-inducing coda that brings Bono and the audience back home, perfectly bookending the opening of the I+E Tour a few years ago--does not get completely lost on the audience. Unlike on previous tours, Bono is not afraid to spell it out, so that we can join him on this unexpected journey and get something out of it ourselves. While there are still plenty of esoteric motifs sprinkled throughout the show for us die-hards to marvel at and dissect, the show is still made for the masses. 


Whether a large majority of the attending fans take the show as a whole or still look at it as “It was OK, but I wanted some Joshua Tree songs” is something every artist has to grapple with, but hopefully not obsess over. U2 have done plenty of tours that were just, well, songs. PopMart tried to have a statement about consumerism, but it got lost along the way. Elevation and Vertigo, while not terribly ambitious, more than satisfied those who just wanted to see and hear four guys do what they do best. The U2 360 Tour dabbled in science and science fiction, space and time, but I doubt anyone went home having debates about monoliths or time travel. The I+E Tour told this story about halfway before becoming a standard Greatest Hits show in the second half. And Joshua Tree 2017 helped bridge the gap between these two tours and gave a large set of U2 fans what they had always wanted: A big, beautiful, two-hour-plus show of the biggest U2 hits.


The E+I Tour will likely be short and sweet, but no less triumphant. From what I saw in the arenas, they had no problem selling the new songs to the crowd. Bono’s in-between song banter was as charming and engaging as ever. U2 had earned themselves the right to go in their own direction, to take the audience somewhere personal, heartfelt and universal. We can nitpick and complain about setlist fatigue, but I can’t think of a part of the show that the band does not look forward to with great anticipation. Even “Pride” gets a new treatment and a nice surprise (especially if you’re on the floor). It’s all new for the audience and it’s all new for the band as well. Maybe all this high-concept presentation doesn’t matter to the average music fan who just wants to see a band perform, but as rock ‘n’ roll gets reduced more and more to a collection of iTunes singles on our phones and overstuffed music festivals with poor sound quality, the occasional, big Theatrical Performance tour is one we should embrace and a form of expression we cannot afford to lose. 

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