U2 360° Tour in Vienna 08-30-10

“You know, some people measure their years from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Eve.  We seem to measure our years from U2 show to U2 show.  Well, this year, at least.”

The above statement is what I said to Mrs. NH as we were heading back to our hotel, hot on the heels of our 2nd U2 show in a little over a year.  Overcome by the sense of euphoria and muscle fatigue that comes with 3-4 hours standing in the middle of a stadium with 70,000 of your closest friends, I reflected on the past year.  Monday night’s show was a fitting way to cap a year that has been less than business as usual for the NH clan.

The show was really one of the best I have seen by this band.  Having been lucky enough to catch them six times live since 1997, I’m getting to know what a really good U2 show is and this was one of them.  I entered the stadium with slightly lowered expectations.  After Bono’s 50th birthday and the US tour-scotching back surgery coupled with a complete lackluster performance on the U2 360 from Pasadena DVD, I thought my rock and roll heroes might have lost the magic.

Luckily, they proved me wrong and opened a huge can of awesomeness in the stadium on a Monday night and even moved yours truly to exclaim, “They’re on fire!”  Bono’s voice sounded like he was about 25 as he hit every high note and sang every lyric.  Larry Mullen’s snares sounded more like pistols as the percussive effect of each shot cracked through the air.  Adam Clayton’s bass was unusually “dirty” and really stood out in the sound mix giving some needed oomph to a road worn set list.  Finally, even though he was plagued by technical glitches, the Edge made up for it by playing like it was his last show.  Chords growled from his armory of guitars and he seemed to wrestle each one like a live serpent, as he set the cool Vienna evening ablaze.

The 360 tour has settled into a nice groove.  The band is no longer in awe of its own stage and has learned to instead concentrate on playing the best version of each song.  The sound coming from the “claw” was crisper than ever with lows that rumbled my jeans –  even in the center of a crowd of 20,000 punters on the floor.

But I would be wildly negligent if I didn’t comment a little further on Bono himself.  This is a man that has had ups and downs this year and is back with a vengeance.  His aforementioned voice punctuated the songs and his movement around the stage gave the whole show the theatrical boost that had been missing last year in Berlin.  Shades of the ZooTV tour were in his delivery of “Until the End of the World” on this night.  That transformed the song from merely rocking to something with infinitely deeper layers that even caused my mind to dip into the spiritual, Biblical strata of this 5 minute rock song.  This was U2, after all.

One gets the feeling that this band has seen the end of the world over the past year.  And like they always have, they bring it to the stage to put your world in perspective even if only for a few fleeting moments on one night in late August.

Happy New Year.

Pitve-Zavala Tunnel – Hvar, Croatia

I suppose this is what birth would look like if you had headlights and U2’s “Walk On” as a soundtrack.

This was the skinniest tunnel I have ever been through.  It’s on the island of Hvar, Croatia between Pitve and Zavala and man, is it skinny.  A stoplight is at either end of the tunnel as it can only (barely) handle one lane at a time.  The whole thing only lasts about a minute but I can imagine that would be the longest minute ever for someone that is claustrophobic.

Getting to the other side was definitely worth it.  There was a fresh calamari lunch as well as some of the island’s delicious wines.  We didn’t have too much, though because it’s hard to cover one eye and drive back through such a small tunnel.

Joking, folks.  Joking.  We let Little NH drive.

U2 Was Just Up The Road, In Berlin

I missed ’em.  I tried to get tickets last week but my connection was hosed to the German ticket site.  Oh, well.  Can’t win ’em all.  I’ve got Tickets for Vienna next summer.  At any rate, here’s “Moment of Surrender” (apparently their next single)  from Berlin during the MTV Video Music Awards.  20 years from the fall of the wall and almost 20 years since Achtung Baby.  Wow, I’m getting old.

U2 To Stream Pasadena Concert Live on You Tube

u2ubeU2 fan page @U2 reportsU2 360 that U2’s concert on Sunday will be streamed live on YouTube.  It won’t be available for me in the Czech Republic (it’d be 5:30 am, anyway) but it might be available where you are.  The good news is, it’ll be archived on U2’s YouTube page afterward.  Oh, and if that doesn’t float your boat, you can sit around and wait for the DVD release in a few months.

Frankly, I think this should happen a lot more.  Also, there’s a killing to be made stitching all of the fan-made hi-def video of all of the shows over the tour.  Just give us a good digital soundtrack and let the fans do the rest…

Freedom Looks Like Too Many Choices

food aisle“In New York freedom looks like too many choices.”

The above line appears in U2’s song about New York City, aptly titled “New York.”  While I don’t expect to be setting foot in New York next week, I think the sentiment about “too many choices” will apply to my experience returning to America, even for a brief stay.  See, I moved to Prague about five years ago with the intent of experiencing Europe.  With the help of my wife, I’ve done it.  I’ve traveled and seen more places than I ever knew existed.  In order to accomplish that, I’ve had to build up an acceptance of the unfamiliar.  Even my daily commute is a barrage of things that I don’t understand.  I don’t speak Czech (I know few expats who actually do) and therefore everything I experience outside of my home and office is in a language I don’t understand.  Yes, I know, that’s my fault but that’s not the point here.  The point is, that’s what I’m used to.  So, when I go home to Washington, DC next week, I expect to have some serious culture shock.

The last time I was there I experienced what I could compare a deaf man suddenly being able to hear.  While in America, I can say “excuse me” and be understood, I can order a sandwich with extra mayo, I can ask, “What aisle is the deodorant in?”  It’s shocking after not being able to do that for over a year.  As for the choice, that’s another thing entirely.

I recently talked to one of my buddies that lived abroad about his experiences returning home.  We both agreed that the number of choices is the hardest thing to adjust to.  It’s overwhelming.  He actually admitted to turning around and walking out of US stores upon his return in America because it was just an overload to the senses.  As Americans, we sometimes forget that all of that choice is not a worldwide standard – it’s particularly American.

I’m not condemning it.  Not by a long shot.  I’m excited to see and experience it.  I’m excited to experience it in stores, in restaurants – everywhere.  I’m going to go to the grocery store just to look around for goodness sake.  But I know it’s going to be a shock.

In preparation, I’m going through blogs and food sites making a mental list of places to eat before my trip ends.  There are just not enough hours in the day to eat all that I want to while I’m there.  But rest assured, I’ll post about my impressions with the giddiness of a small child after each meal.  I can’t wait for my senses to short circuit, short circuit in America.  Heck,  we’ve got new circuits in aisle 11.  Sure beats Grunt for dinner.

U2 360° Tour in Berlin 07-18-09

This is my fifth time seeing U2 on four consecutive tours.   Of all of the U2 shows I’ve seen, this one was the best since the Popmart Tour for a hard-core fan even though songs from the Pop album were non-existent in the set list.   Nevertheless, the mix of songs succeeded in showcasing the new album, a healthy portion of hits, and some deep cuts of albums such as The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby.   Refreshingly, the politics, while not dialed back entirely, didn’t overshadow the music.  Yes, Bono preached but he sang a lot more.

This brings me to Bono’s voice – he’s reclaimed it.   Throughout his career, it has gone through changes in pitch and he’s learned to use it in different ways. It is clear that on this tour, his intention is to sing with full voice and hit all of the notes.  The sound crew seems to know this as well.  With the vocals raised to the front of the sound mix, Bono knows what he has and he ain’t afraid to use it.  The result for the fans was a real treat. Even as I sang at the top of my lungs, Bono’s voice was clearly audible.

The band itself played with a real fervor as well.   They were loose and were obviously enjoying themselves on stage as they back slapped, grinned and laughed their way through the 2 and 1/2 hour set.  There has been some speculation that this may be U2’s last tour.  The way they seemed to make every second count in Berlin might actually lend credence to that theory.  This was a U2 show after all.  First there was the sheer magnitude of the stage setup, then the set list tailored for a true fan and finally the tongue in cheek camp sections that segued to intense political hymns.  Saturday night, they made it all look pretty easy.  They clearly find comfort in the contradictions of the jarring effect of dance remixes and calls to “Radio Tehran” that appear just seconds apart.

Two highlights were what set this show apart from the Vertigo Tour stop in Berlin four years ago. First of all, the incredible Redanka dance remix of “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” was mixed with live vocals and live instrumentation and was a throwback to the ironic and unfairly maligned Popmart tour. It was unexpected, powerful and downright fun. The second jaw dropping performance was during the Achtung Baby gem, “Ultra Violet (Baby, Light My Way).”  During this song, Bono donned a black suit striped with red laser lights that cut through the fog like something out of Tron.  The effect was Bono at his theatrical best as he clung to a microphone suspended from the top of the stage setup. The costume and his performance matched the emotional depth of the song and will certainly help to usher the track into the canon of all time U2 live classics.

Finally, there were the hits.   Most were played with fervor and “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” made a forceful comeback as Persian script filled the massive 360 degree screen and a green glow was cast over the entire set.  Bono’s calls to “Radio Tehran” gave the song a new foil and the result breathed new life into an old classic.  Others like “Beautiful Day” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” coasted effortlessly along on fan appreciation and Bono’s velvety, spot on vocals.

Some people claim that U2’s best days are behind them.  That may be true in some ways but the 360 Tour certainly makes the case in their defense.  At 49, Bono can sing better than most men 1/2 his age and though there was lackluster initial reception to their newest release, it was the “No Line on the Horizon” tracks that really carried the show and displayed the talents and uniqueness of the band.  With this tour, the band has struck a balance between flexing its creative muscle on the new songs, putting on an incredible live spectacle, and placating fans with “the hits.”  If this ends up being their last tour, it will be a tour of a band that decided to go out on top, guns blazing.

Saved by Rock ‘n Roll

There’s a particular passage in Andy Summers’ One Train Later where he muses, “Is there anything better than music?”  I’d have to say I have asked the same question a million times in my life.  It is no exaggeration that music is responsible for the best parts of my life.  Forget the concerts or the late night listenings to sacred albums that leave goosebumps down to the tops of your feet – I’m talking about people.

These are the memories etched in my brain:

Album hunting with my brother in the olden days, tape exchanges in the less-olden days, CD burning in the recent past and hard drive scavenging in the present.

Laughing with my dad and the “don’t needta discuss muuuuuuuuuch!!!” karaoke sessions to the Best of Paul Simon.

Hearing my mom say that she wanted to hear Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly” when we went to run errands in the Pontiac 6000.

Discovering a copy of the Police box set in a girlfriend’s car and not knowing whether to make out with her or blare “Roxanne” in celebration.  (For the record, we blared “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle” then made out – she later became my wife.)

My daughter now sings, “I got a submarine, you got gasoline, I don’t wanna talk about wars between nations!”  It must be a really dominant gene…

My friends.  All of them.  Each friend seemingly identified by their own band in my mind.  One that fits them.  One that I turned them on to or that they did for me.  Little stamps of record covers, passages of songs, the smell of freshly unwrapped CDs and hours of conversation in and about and around the music.  But ever present in each one – the music.  Always the music.

So, it is no wonder that I once again stare in awe of my life as I’m about to go meet a childhood friend that has traveled to Prague from Okla-freakin’-homa all because we grew up on U2 together.  A year or two ago, he dropped me a line that saying he’s never seen U2 and if he did he’d be willing to travel wherever I was to experience it with me.  (Do shared experiences of books tie people together like that?  Paintings?  Food – maybe.)  I took him at his word and he wasn’t bluffing.  To make things even better, we’re going with my wife and yet another friend from Prague.  (He and I hatched the plan to see U2 during a drive back from Berlin after an Oasis show.)

Music.  Always the music.

In answer to your question, Mr. Summers – no, there is nothing better.

U2 Lets Us in the Sound

I just got back from 10 days on the Iberian peninsula and have a pocket full of places that need proper reviews and hat tips.  However, when I got home this afternoon, I realized that the new U2 album was available on the Internet – ripe for the picking.  With the media center all set to go in the living room I gave it my first spin.  Since it’s early, this isn’t a review, just some preliminary impressions.

1) It sounds better than their other albums.  It appears to be a crisper mix and not at all as in your face as “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.”  Keeping in mind that this was a fairly low quality stream as well, I think the CD release should sound excellent.

2) Man, Bono’s voice sounds incredible.  Will he be able to hit those notes on tour?

3) “Get on Your Boots” was the obvious first single.  There are a couple other rockers on there but “Boots” is the most immediate.

4) Finally, I’m struck by how heavy the mood of the album seems to be.  There seems to be a density of subject matter that we haven’t seen since “Achtung Baby.”  I can only imagine that it’s a product of the times.

5) Oh, one more thing.  I’m intrigued by the lyrical references to technology, ATM’s, rebooting, passwords.  Interesting.  It could date the album in a few years but coming from the band with the lyric “In the time when new media was the big idea” I don’t think they’re too worried.

It’s seems solid, layered with some really great, fresh sounding – yet instantly classic – Edge riffage.

Bring on the tour.

No Change on the Horizon?

Yeah, the title could refer to the first few weeks of the Obama administration but, unfortunately, it is referring to the 30 second clips of the new U2 album, “No Line on the Horizon” that leaked today.  After all of the hype of this album, I’m afraid I may have gotten my hopes up too high.  I loved the last two albums but they haven’t aged well.  There was nothing to dig into.  The clips of the new one sound like, well, U2.  That’s not a bad thing but it’s also not what was being sold by all of the press outlets who have reviewed the album thus far.  Granted, you can’t judge an album from 30 second song clips but consider my expectations lowered.  Maybe that’s a good thing?

U2’s performance at the Grammys last night was pretty fun though – even if the sound mix and Bono’s timing were terrible.