LOS ANGELES — U2’s preoccupation with outlandish technology can probably be traced to Bono’s rushed limo ride to the hospital in 1987. The runaway success of the band’s fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree, had catapulted the Irish rockers from smaller arenas into very, very large stadiums, where the band had to work a lot harder to connect with its audiences.
Watching concert footage from that era, you can see Bono seeming to use every muscle to fling the music out to the cheap seats. By U2’s Sept. 20, 1987 show, in front of more than 50,000 fans at Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium, the band had endured this routine through more than 50 shows. Bono slipped in the rain and dislocated his shoulder, cutting the concert short by three songs. He was rushed from the stadium to the emergency room.
Stadium rock “is a matter of commerce, not communion,” the Washington Post wrote in its review of the show, saying that Bono’s promise to “turn this big empty space into a small club” was one that the band couldn’t keep.
U2 has been trying to prove that Post story wrong for more than three decades. The band, which includes four high-school friends from Dublin — singer Bono, drummer Larry Mullen Jr., bassist Adam Clayton and The Edge on guitar — has staked its career on building and keeping an intimate connection with fans.
U2’s latest tour, “Experience + Innocence,” which opened this month, uses the most sophisticated tech and beautifully strange ideas yet to prove music for the masses can be about communion and commerce.
I caught U2’s May 15 show at The Forum in L.A., and GeekWire photographer Kevin Lisota was there the next day. (Sorry, no shows in Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., on this tour.) The show includes augmented reality, a crisp LED screen that the band can climb “inside,” a PA system that promises to unleash full, lush — and very loud — sound to every seat in the arena, and several stages, including an “e-stage” whose floor is made of video monitors. In all, U2’s crew hangs 178,000 pounds — that’s 89 tons — of equipment from the venue’s ceiling for each show.
The crew, which includes 90 people traveling with the band and another 120 locals, can set it all up in 10 hours and break it down in four. Once it’s packed up, the set travels to the next gig in 27 53-foot semis. And when the production goes overseas later this year, the gear will travel in 37 ocean containers or four 747 freighters.
It is probably an unintentional irony that “Experience + Innocence” begins with another Bono injury projected on the band’s most high-tech screen to date. Bono wrote portions of the “Songs of Experience” album after suffering a yet-unspecified near-death experience. As audience members poured into The Forum, the LED screen glowed with a purple, alien-looking image: a close up of Bono’s MRI from the incident.
It’s the first hint that the night may well become wonderfully strange. Open a U2 app on your phone, point it at the screen and the MRI image turns into a melting iceberg, with water gushing out — a metaphor for consciousness, the band says.
At the show’s beginning, Bono sings “Love is All We Have Left,” a ballad about life’s end that includes an auto-tuned version of his voice. It’s as if he’s being accompanied by a hopeless android version of himself. As Bono sings, the audience can point their phones at a giant screen and the augmented reality app reveals a three-dimensional, large, blue, Bono reaching out of the screen.
It’s a novel approach to a big problem facing entertainers: smartphones by the thousands raised above the audience’s heads in an effort to capture the moment. By building AR into the beginning of the show, U2 is embracing the audience’s habit rather than fighting it.
“Total immersion is our gig, and I guess AR just helps,” Bono told CNN in an interview about the technology used on the tour.
The centerpiece of the stage, unsurprisingly, is an 80-foot-long LED screen. But here’s where it gets interesting: The screen — called “the barricage” — cuts the arena perfectly in half, making the room feel half its size.
Better still, the display is built out of two transparent screens that sandwich a long, narrow walkway that runs down the middle. By standing on the walkway, the band can perform “inside” the screen, creating the illusion that the flesh-and-blood musicians are interacting with digital elements projected on the screen.
For example, a giant Bono projected on the screen appears to spit water on a small Edge, who is actually standing on the walkway inside the screen. During another part of the show, Bono, now inside the screen himself, appears to be walking down an animated Cedarwood Road, his boyhood street in Dublin. The magic happens thanks to a nerve center of computers and consoles behind the stage.
“All the staging you see behind us really goes back to the early days of U2 when we would stage dive,” said Bono in the CNN interview. “We would break the fourth wall trying to get to our audience — trying to touch them, trying to reach them. Then when we got to playing theaters and then arenas, the back of the theater got further and further away.”
Bono is no stranger in the strange land of technology. The singer has invested in tech companies, including Facebook, as a partner in private equity firm Elevation Partners. He and The Edge were recently revealed as investors in Convoy, an on-demand trucking startup based in Seattle. Their past investments range from food technology startup Nuritas to cloud storage giant Dropbox.
On stage, the tech-fueled images can be dizzying, disorienting, even sinister. Each calls forth a kind of sleek, post-modern, and slightly dark Euro-cool. Think Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in leather pants. At the beginning of the show, during “The Blackout,” ghostly, outsized shadows of the band flicker against a white background. A panic of strobe flashes reveals the actual band members inside the screen, wailing away on their instruments. The effect is wild and a little scary.
Later, Bono reprises his early 90s role as the preening pop star “Mr. MacPhisto” (AKA Lucifer). As he speaks, his face, projected on the screen, changes to horns and fangs, thanks to a Snapchat-style video filter. The screens help the band tell a story. As Bono told CNN, “I’m trying to put blood into the zeros and the ones.”
On its most recent records, 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” and last year’s “Songs of Experience,” the band has been exploring what it is to grow up, to learn, to fall in love, to die, to discover beauty, to experience loss — and then to rediscover hope and tenderness.
Thematically, this tour is the sequel to 2015’s “Innocence + Experience Tour,” which, like this year’s outing, draws its inspiration from the poet and mystic William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” The 2015 tour included similar emotional themes told on an almost identical stage and screen. The ‘barricage’ for this tour has been rebuilt, U2’s organizers said. To start, the new screen’s resolution is nine times better than its predecessor. It’s also 75 percent transparent compared to 2015’s “Innocence” tour, where the screen was 45 percent transparent. This means you can see the band better when they’re on the walkway inside the screen.
For each of its shows starting in the 1990s, U2’s arsenal has included big screens, bright lights, stages reaching deep into crowds and pivoting bridges stretching over them. Its 360 Tour, from 2009-2011, had as its centerpiece “The Claw,” a structure the size of small skyscraper designed to dwarf the stadium. It was the largest grossing tour of all time, pulling in $736.4 million.
Zoo TV in 1992 included big screens and, mounted to the ceiling, Trabant cars from the just-unraveled Eastern Bloc. For U2’s 1997 PopMart tour, the University of Oregon agreed to tear off the back of its football stadium and rebuild it with wider corridors so U2’s trucks could haul in what was at the time the world’s largest LED screen as well as a 100-foot golden arch that hovered over the crowd.
The PopMart Tour also included a 40-foot, spinning mirrorball lemon that hatched open like a UFO to reveal the band inside. (An important piece of U2 lore: There are said to be two occasions when the lemon refused to open, leaving the band stuck inside.)
Memories of the 1987 Joshua Tree tour’s troubles were fresh in the band’s memory when they set out last year on a new stadium tour to celebrate the Joshua Tree’s 30th anniversary.
“It was actually quite a tough time trying to deliver those songs under the pressure of growing from an arena act to a stadium act,” bassist Adam Clayton recalled in an early 2017 conversation with Rolling Stone. “I, for one, don’t remember enjoying it very much.”
Which is no doubt why, for last year’s Joshua Tree anniversary tour, U2 brought a 200-foot by 45-foot 7.6K resolution screen that towered above the stage. It will also come as no surprise, given this history, that it was the largest and highest resolution screen ever used in a concert tour.
During the show last week at The Forum, in the midst of all that startling imagery, U2 played new songs about what they want their families to know at the end of life — the stuff that matters, the things to be grateful for. The band’s nearly grown children appeared on the screen more than once. (They’re on U2’s most recent album covers, too.)
On stage, Bono said the evening was about finding innocence again on the other side of experience — a story reflected in an outsized, animated comic that appeared during the concert, showing the band stumbling through life. These are songs that lift you up and tear your heart out. It’s the stuff you think about telling your kids when you’re staring off in space in an airport terminal on your way home from a business trip. No big screens needed here — although they help.
And in those moments, after 30 years, U2 may have pulled it off: circuits and pixels and hearts and minds came together to make that big, empty space feel, finally, like a small club.