Where the streets actually have no name

U2’s 360° Tour in La Plata will blow you away – if you only get to hear it right

You may have seen videos and photos of The Claw, the centrepiece of U2’s  360° tour, and yet they do not prepare you for standing in the presence of the first wave of the Martian invasion. It is massive. I mean, truly massive, the legs spanning the width of a soccer pitch, its spire as tall as the arena that houses it. And La Plata’s Estadio Único is the perfect landing site – with or without U2, the rising curves and overarching canopy already give the place an outlandish feel, like it too has been brought from another planet.
And the band harps on the alien theme with its classic irony: the band walks on stage on top of David Bowie’s Space Oddity and walks out to the chorus of Elton John’s Rocket Man, and there are videos in between sets with cartoonish spaceships. The same irony that created The Claw: if you cannot hide the rig that is going to hold the lights and sound gear on top of a circular stage, hide it in plain sight by shoving it in the faces of the audience – make it so massive that it becomes the identity of the tour.
But the true cosmic event is the way in which Bono & co. take half a century of arena rock evolution, turn it on its head, run it through a blender and then amp it up to a factor of one million. It is the most spectacular rock show on Earth – a scripted, choreographed and utterly designed event in which every effect, movement, visual, prop and sound has been engineered for maximum effect. The experience is truly all around you: lights flood the stage in impossible configurations from all corners of the Claw, but they also project on the audience, turning the field into a sea of coloured heads and arms, the seats into giant screens for a light show that makes the experience unique.
U2 plays an arena the way Jimi Hendrix played a Stratocaster, and it sets them in a category of their own. David Bowie brought cabaret onto the stage, but he never really took it all the way. Peter Gabriel trademarked the concept show, but he leaves all the fun and concept on the stage. The Rolling Stones pump you harder, but they plant a bomb in front of you and let it explode. You may have seen better bands, more inspired musicians, more energetic shows, momentous tours that make the history books of rock music, but you will not live through something as engaging and engorging as this.
And they’ve been working on it for 20 years: Rattle & Hum (1987) chronicles the Joshua Tree tour, when U2 peaked their potential as a rock quartet and parted ways with the classic rock band. Four years later they greeted a new decade with a new album (Achtung Baby), a new self (a postmodern multimedia sensory overload) and a new tour to make it all happen (ZooTV). Since then, they have one-upped themselves on each world outing, always pushing the envelope one inch further, testing the borders, turning utopias into goldmines, repeating the music (the setlist goes all the way back to their first albums, with songs like Gloria, New Year’s Day, Sunday Bloody Sunday or I Will Follow) but never the ride – and, like the theme song to TV series United States of Tara goes, “I know we’ll be just fine if we learn to love the ride.”

A four-stroke engine. But in the middle of the multimedia explosion, just beneath the giant round TV screen that turns their faces into humongous icons, are four Irish guys (The Edge was actually born in England, but who’s counting), just flesh and blood singing, strumming and banging on metal and wood through a few truckloads of electronics. If they get to be blown into titans it must be because they have something titanic in the first place.
And they do. They have the songs, in the first place: while their albums may be uneven and sometimes patchy, U2 has enough solid gold songs to fill a lot more than the 160 minutes they play on this tour. Indeed, they could play many shows in many different textures, making them sound like different bands: the rockers, the lovers, the ravers, the melancholy gazers, the pick-you-ups, the mellow-you-downs. Deciding what to play, with a band like them, means more than anything making hard choices about what not to play.
Their setlist last Wednesday kicked off with a combo blow to the head: Even Better than the Real Thing, I Will Follow, Get On Your Boots, Magnificent and Misterious Ways light a mighty fuse that explodes in Elevation segueing into Until the End of the World. Then they brought it down with I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, picket it up two songs later with Beautiful Day, only to cool it with In a Little While. City of Blinding LightsVertigo, Sunday Bloody Sunday and Where The Streets Have No Name (sung in La Plata, a city whose streets actually don’t) got you jumping and pumping fists; One, Miss Sarajevo and With or Without You mellowed the affair, and so the rollercoaster went.
But the songs are propelled by a four-stroke engine as tight and powerful as an F1 racer. Bono is the ultimate frontman, an effective singer that excels at coming across to 58,000 people at once, lifting and soothing and wowing them at will, a presence bigger than the Claw and louder than the blaring sound. The Edge is the most underestimated of the guitarists that redefined the role of the guitar in rock music: while not a virtuoso, his echoes and delays and infinite effects squeeze the six strings for sounds they never thought they had in them, and the misterious way in which he weaves from rhythm to lead to noise to melody justifies Bono describing him on stage as “a man who is everywhere at the same time, and always somewhere interesting.¨ Adam Clayton’s bass and Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums are the unsung heroes providing the rock-solid foundation for the fanfare to stand on. Proof? Before the band walked on stage a crew member started playing a few bass lines from the songs to test the sound, and that was enough to turn  the crowd on, as recognizable as the tunes themselves, and the same could be said of Mullen’s beats.
the 180° tour. And yet, there was an Achilles heel to Wednesday’s show. A pretty big one, if you ask me.
The tour is named 360°, but not all degrees were created equal inside the Estadio Único. The Claw stands not at the centre of the pitch but at one of its ends, which creates the illusion of a traditional set with an open backstage more than a perfect circle – and the band’s efforts to walk around the outer ring that surrounded the inner circle of the stage still did not alter the fact that, for a considerable amount of time, the backbenchers had a view of Bono’s bum.
That could be spun into a defining feature: the fun of  360° is that you get to choose from many concert experiences, either a conventional one (augmented by the massive spaceship in front of you) on the pitch, or a truly upclose ride in the inner circle (where the band hovers over and around you on rotating bridges), or a panoramic one on the sides of the stadium. Choose your poison, as they go.
But for any of that to work, everyone must get decent sound. And last Wednesday, for a considerable chunk of the stadium, the sound quality was, to use a technical term, crap. Not Phil Spector’s wall of sound, but a ball of sound – a gooey, sticky, fuzzy ball. While the best show on Earth rolled in front of your eyes, where I sat (front right of the stage, on the sides, if you want to know) it felt like I was listening to it through a cheap radio blaring out.
The Claw booms mightily from towers of speakers on all four sides, but somehow the engineers had not compensated for the compounded echo of the three sides standing dangerously close to the sonic death trap of the stands and ceiling bouncing back the music, and the tsunami of waves resulted in the aforementioned ball. Bad for the distinct, precise, delicate balance of U2, but absolutely deathly for the power rock of supporting act Muse, which got to my ears as loud distorted gravel where voice equalled guitar equalled whatever else. Literally, the singer was talking between songs and I couldn’t make out the words.
Friends in front of the stage reported to bad sound but not as bad as what I got, while out photographer standing at the inner circle says it sounded just fine. Images on TV report that the mixing board heard a choir of rock angels, and I am looking forward to a TV broadcast to see what sound experience the lads had in mind as they were playing.
Fellow members of the press told me that the shows in Santiago de Chile sounded absolutely perfect, and the sound engineers (if they want to keep their job, at least) will no doubt get the sliders and knobs tuned just right for tomorrow and Sunday. I just hope they had got them right on Wednesday’s sound check.
But that minor distraction did bring to mind a hazard of  U2 on stage: in a show that pushes the envelope so much, that is so minutely architectured, it only takes the slightest distraction from the thrill of the ride (like a grating roar of pebbles à la Matthew Arnold in your ears in my case) to highlight the edge of over-the-top just a hair’s width away. But the nyou get back on the train and have the ride of your life.
Buenos Aires Herald, 31/3/2011

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