U2's first headline tours in support of their debut album, Boy, and immediate follow up album, October, consisted of small clubs across Europe and North America. Very much restricted by venue size, U2 played on their youthful energy to excite the audience.
The War Tour saw a shift away from the small clubs for U2 to larger concert halls. This tour also sparked a lasting relationship with designer Willie Williams. He began to introduce design elements to U2's stage. The War Tour featured a red carpet beneath the drums and white flags at the back of the stage, with which Bono would regularly interact.
Due to the success of the War Tour and growing popularity of the band, U2 moved to consistently playing in arenas. Despite this, the stage design was very minimalistic. No additional props were used and lighting was limited to white, with the occasional use of colour.
The success of The Joshua Tree would prove to be a defining moment for U2. For the first time, their tour consisted of arenas and stadiums. Willie Williams was keen to make the concert experience enjoyable for all and the band agreed to install a video screen for stadiums and a large Joshua Tree canvas stretching the width of the stage.
Zoo TV, in support of Achtung Baby and later, Zooropa, would see a drastic move from the minimalist design of the 1980's to a complex sensory overload. Featuring multiple video screens, elaborate lighting, and the introduction of the B-Stage, Zoo TV marked a new era for U2 tours.
Throughout the tour, Bono would adopt the presence of a number of stage personas known as The Fly, an egotistical rock star, Mirror Ball Man, a greedy American showman, and MacPhisto, a parody of the devil.
PopMart would go one step further than Zoo TV in terms of set design. The 165-foot wide LED screen would comfortably eclipse all Zoo TV video screens put together. A 100-foot high golden arch was installed, complete with a shopping basket at the top. To the right of the stage was 40-foot mirror ball lemon from which the band would emerge for the encore and a 12-foot olive mounted atop a 100-foot cocktail stick. The set was designed to poke fun at popular culture and consumerism.
Following the extravagance of the 90's, U2 were keen to strip back the stage design and opted to return to arenas. A heart shaped ring extended out from the main stage, surrounding a number of fans and providing a walkway for Bono and a B-stage for the band. Video screens were mounted high above the band to provide close-up shots or predesigned visuals.
The 360° Tour featured an elaborate spaceship design structure (the claw) that would house all of the lighting and sound equipment. The intention was to open the band up to a surrounding audience and to shrink the stadium. The drums would revolve around a platform and the 360° screen would relay footage to all sides of the venue. Again, the band opted for a circular walkway to help them to get out into the crowd.
Did you know? The 360 Tour is the highest grossing tour of all-time.
During the encore, Bono would perform wearing an LED laser jacket while singing into a wheel shaped microphone that hung from the claw's structure above.
The Innocence + Experience Tour of 2015 sees U2 continue to push the boundaries of stage design. Their quest to create an intimate show for everyone inside the venue began in 1987 while touring The Joshua Tree. This developed over time to incorporate elaborate visuals and stages that extended into the crowd. For the I+E tour, the band take this to a whole new level.
The i+E Tour is made up of 3 stages. A main stage (known as the I-stage), the e-stage (traditionally the b-stage), and the runway which connects the two. The band aim to play on each for a roughly equal amount of time during the night, with a dedicated 5-song set on the e-stage where a piano is built into the floor. LED lights run the full perimeter of the stages and illuminate at points during the show to highlight the 'i' and 'e' design.
One of the most striking aspects of the stage design on the I+E Tour is the 100-foot screen that is suspended in the centre of the arena. This double-sided, semi-transparent screen is used extensively during the first half of the show to visually add narrative to the music. However, the screen is wide enough to accommodate the band, with Bono literally walking down Cedarwood Road and the band using it as a stage to open the second half with Invisible.