Is U2 (and are we) Better Off in Arenas?
Like many people my age (I’m currently 48), U2’s music has served as the soundtrack of my life. The songs have intertwined with my life events to produce, for the most part (sorry, Pop), timeless albums. However, it wasn’t until the Innocence + Experience tour that I achieved what I would call “groupie” status. Everything surrounding the tour seemed intimate and special. “There is no them, there’s only us,” Bono sang – and the boys lived it.
It was then that I began to take note of the band’s tremendously loyal and fanatical followers. Familiar faces in Phoenix, Denver, Chicago, New York and even Dublin. Had my band become “niche”? The thought seemed absurd, but how many of the tickets sold were to repeat buyers? How many fans went to multiple shows in the same city, like Chicago or New York? Without several new bona fide hits, could U2 ever play to sold-out stadiums again? It was in these GA lines that I proclaimed U2 could no longer do stadiums. It was an argument to fill time, but also one in which I deeply believed.
And then came U2’s teaser message at Christmas 2016, followed within a few weeks by the announcement of the Joshua Tree Tour 2017. A stadium tour. I was both excited and livid. I typed out phrases like “this is a stunt to fill stadiums” and “just put the album out” more than once on fan forums. But I still bought tickets. Lots of them.
Now, after ten shows in seven cities (including several in Europe), I still believe the tour was a stunt (or at least it started as a stunt and evolved). An excuse to stall releasing Songs of Experience; a contractual obligation to appease Live Nation; a cash-grab to fill stadiums… whatever. But a stunt nonetheless. However, I managed to put that aside and tell myself all that mattered was hitting the road, seeing the band and the friends I had made on the last tour, getting to experience “side two” of The Joshua Tree and maybe even “Bad,” a song mostly neglected on Innocence + Experience.
One reason I dreaded stadium shows is that they tend to cater to the casual fans. This tour seems to be aimed at the people who only know the radio songs – people who head to get a beer or the restroom during the latter half of the full-album performance. How absurd, I thought when speaking with first-timers in GA on this tour who had shielded themselves from spoilers, that these people actually think U2 might play something obscure, or at the very least, less mainstream. Many hoped for “Luminous Times,” “Silver and Gold,” or something for the diehards. U2 knows their audience – and they play to them. The audience at stadiums, at least a vast majority, don’t want know what “Heartland” is, and they don’t want to hear it.
Our largely, but lovably inflexible band changed it up some on i.e. Each night had a “wild card” song in the first four songs, two on the e-stage, plus the promise that the encore might bring something new. “In God’s Country,” “Stuck in a Moment,” “Gloria,” “The Crystal Ballroom,” “Volcano” (sorry Matt McGee) and more were played largely as a result of fan requests/badgering. The immensely popular “shine like stars” coda was even added during “With or Without You” after much cajoling. The band was more relaxed, more casual, and more willing to take risks and cater to us.
So after the first two legs of the tour, can we truly say U2 is “back?” One could easily argue that once again they have successfully reapplied to be “the best band in the world.” But a quick glance at next month’s U.S. ticket sales might suggest otherwise.
Sales in cities that have less population than the cherry-picked ones from leg one are decent, but not overwhelming. As of this posting, many cities still have GA left, and most have hundreds if not thousands of seats left. Keep in mind this is a tour that promises and delivers the band’s most popular album and plays the greatest hits from other albums before and after 1987. The stunt certainly worked for the major metropolitan areas of the U.S., but it seems as if the red states (not the [RED] states) still need a new hit or three to come out before they turn out.
This leaves me and the other groupies in a good news/bad news situation. All rumors seem to indicate we’re finally getting the release of SOE, then going back to arenas in 2018. Back to the more intimate show featuring (hopefully) more us and less them. For my personal wish list, I hope “Bad” will remain a staple like it was on the first two legs of this tour, and perhaps with the new album release a warhorse or two will finally be retired from live performance (my choices: “Vertigo” and “Bullet”).
The bad news? It seems like my 2015 proclamation might be accurate: Without an absolutely brilliant album or two with charting hits, U2 just can’t sustain a stadium tour for more than a handful of stops. To me, though, that isn’t really bad news. I’ve loved the Joshua Tree Tour 2017 and still have three more stops on leg three. But I definitely feel like a them in a stadium. I’m looking forward to being an us again in an arena. (author website)