A Life Force — U2’s Stunning “Innocence and Experience” Concert in Paris
“ISIS and these kinds of extremists are a death cult. We’re a life cult. Rock ’n’ roll is a life force, and it’s a joy as an act of defiance. That’s what U2 is.”
One of the most extraordinary music events in a very long time took place in Paris earlier this week.
Irish band U2’s concert tours are always an experience for the eyes and ears. But two back-to-back concerts on the nights of December 6th and 7th transcended rock theater and transformed an otherwise pedestrian Parisian stage into one of the great geopolitical marches of our time.
Music has always had the power to move us, to motivate us, to make us laugh, to make us cry, and to infuse our everyday lives with increased connectivity to the things that matter most. Great music, even more so. For millions, U2 has become what Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Judy Garland, and other cultural icons were all those years ago for multiple generations — not just harmonic voices with a catchy beat, but a channel of aspiration to something far beyond ourselves.
Bono, the group’s lead singer, and frontman, willfully answered an inner call to turn simple song lyrics into good deeds. Actions do speak louder than words, even if those words make up the liner notes of anthems selling by the millions. For decades, Bono (and his bandmates) have not only written, sung, recorded, and performed live, but he’s been equally as active in speaking out for international human rights, AIDS/HIV research and treatment, non-violence, world peace, environmental protection, and other noble humanitarian causes which otherwise wouldn’t be part of the lexicon of global consciousness without the spark of a celebrity endorsement of his stature.
But terrorism is a particularly sensitive and even divisive issue right now, particularly in light of the Paris attacks of November 13th (followed by San Bernardino) when a rock concert by the American band, Eagles of Death Metal was one of the primary targets. Eight-two of the 130 who were killed in Paris were at the concert. U2 had been scheduled to continue the European leg of its “Innocence and Experience” tour in France just a few days after the unanticipated chaos. Following considerable deliberation which included input from France’s higher authorities, organizers decided to postpone U2’s Paris concert dates, rescheduling those performances for this week. A greatly anticipated event that was originally set to be broadcast on HBO and beamed back to North America was therefore delayed, due to fears of more attacks.
The three-week delay only heightened public anticipation and made the moment all the more poignant when the four members of U2 finally took to the stage and launched into a riveting 2 hour and 30-minute concert that was equal parts musical, political, tutorial, and spiritual. The sequence of songs performed — lots of new material, infused with the expected classics — hardly mattered. It was seeing U-2 at the height of their creative powers take to the stage once again where they seem most at ease, commanding the room as they do best, bringing fans of all ages to their feet, and beaming an impenetrable wall of sound and creative energy which dazzlingly radiated as “Je Suis Paris” to the entire world.
Sure, the music was great. But the real star of this concert might have been the stage. That’s right. Eclipsing a 35-year catalog of all-too-familiar hits and plenty of new material of their most recent releases, U2’s massive concert stage the size of a football field has now blown the roof off the conventional concert experience and set a new standard of disbelief. It’s not just the intricate layout and jaw-dropping size and scope of the wall-to-wall technology that’s mind-blowing. U2’s use of an imposing screen which somehow melds onto the long runway trafficked back and forth by band members (singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton — drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. doesn’t move from his spot, obviously) becomes musical “virtual reality” on an unprecedented scale. This isn’t just a live performance. It’s a full-blown immersion for the senses.
For those who don’t have access to HBO TV or won’t get the chance to see the way, U2’s stage is configured, allow me to describe it. Imagine a basketball arena. The conventional rock band setup (drums, guitars, microphones, speakers) is placed at one end of the court. The other end on the opposite side of the court — perhaps 300 feet away — has a large oval area, which allows Bono and the other band members to perform when they so please. The two stages are joined together by a lengthy runway like at the Miss America pageant, which extends straight down the middle of the court. Naturally, all the performers take positions at different places throughout the lengthy performance. However, during several songs, a giant double-sided video screen (actually described as a “video cage”) is lowered down onto the stage. Flashy larger-than-life visuals of the group, short interludes of subject matter related to songs, and creative light bursts emanate a level of energy I’ve not witnessed before, even when viewing on television. For those who attended the Paris concerts live, it’s a cliche to say there wasn’t a bad seat in the house given the way the stage is set up.
Be sure and tune to HBO and record this historic concert, which is being repeated several times this month. As for musicality, while the band remains perfectly in sync, Bono’s best days as a hyperactive singer who can shrill the high notes are long passed. But the degree of effort and a general sense of awareness that we’re watching an international force in the September of his years made up for the lapse. Moreover, a surprise encore coupling music and the terrible events of the Paris tragedy come together perfectly, which won’t be revealed here. The closing half-hour provided an all-too-rare storybook ending to a night of music that was anything but routine. It was a statement.
I’ve seen u2 perform live on four occasions, which I’ve always found to be a moving experience, one of the few times I was taken to a higher place. But this concert (viewed on television) was every bit as stunning and given the setting and circumstances — perhaps even more so given our troubled times. A personal favorite moment: At the 1:29 mark just prior to “Where the Street Have No Name,” Bono nails it with an impassioned plea about the power of love over fear, one of the most powerful concert scenes I’ve witnessed. I don’t know how those there in the audience held it together — the moment was magic.
So rare now are spontaneous occasions when perfect storms of emotional, political, and musical angst intersect into an experience that goes far beyond just catchy tunes and hit records. For those who celebrate music as the soundtrack to life, and understand that inseparable link between the two, U2 performing in Paris in December 2015 in the wake of the tragedy from weeks earlier not only stands as a testament to their tremendous staying power but to ours, as well. This wasn’t merely a show by a band of four. Rather, it became a band of billions, collectively tapping our feet not just in Paris, but around the world.
On this special night, we weren’t just Parisians. We were all members of U2. We were them. And, they were us.