August 01, 2011

U2 360° Tour 2009-2011 Post-Mortem, Plus Belly Dancing

Yeah yeah, another U2 post—even though I promised to hold back. Plug your nose and go for it, or else click away fast.

So as I've said previously, I decided to blow off the 360° tour, after seeing a token show from the last three (PopMart, Elevation, and Vertigo). That proved to be a colossal personal mistake, but I won't dwell on that. Neither will I blather on and on about what sucked about U2 during their current "No Line on the Horizon" phase—other people have done that and I've wasted all my superficial vitriol on Obama hyperfans at other sites. This will be about the respectable side of the 360° tour, the setlist surprises and general willingness of the band to mess with a rigid stadium-level production. Also, they visited several cities for the first time, including Moscow and Istanbul. Here's a quick list of my favorite setlist surprises of unreleased, rare and old tunes (with live audio if I could find it on Grooveshark)—which differed across legs of the tour as it spanned several continents and Bono's injured spine:

"Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"
This epic Achtung Baby song had been mothballed ever since the final legs of the Zoo TV tour as it went Down Under in 1993. "Ultraviolet" usually preceded "With or Without You" on that tour's encore, and it did basically the same thing on 360°, a regular feature in which Bono sang the whole second verse an octave higher. Considering how shabby his voice had been on the 1997 and 2001 tours, that was a revelation. Undoubted setlist highlight for all of the 2009 and a few of the 2010 and 2011 shows.

"The Unforgettable Fire"
Title track of the band's arty 1984 album, which had not been played live since the end of the Lovetown tour in January 1990. The cynic in me understands that the band revived this track to promote the Unforgettable Fire album's deluxe 25th anniversary reissue in fall 2009—and indeed it did not appear in the 2010 or 2011 sets—but "Unforgettable Fire" did anchor a somewhat "ambient" section of the 2009 sets, and it fit in well with the more atmospheric pieces from the current No Line on the Horizon album.

Speaking of NLOTH, that's gotta be the one downside I'll mention. It wasn't a great album by a long-shot, but it was better than U2's previous two—and the four-song set opener from that album was gradually whittled to three, two, and then no songs at the show's kickoff. I think only two songs from that album were actually played at every show, and the album's relatively poor commercial performance virtually ensured its eventual demotion from a tour ostensibly promoting it. Still, "Breathe," "No Line on the Horizon," "Magnificent," "Unknown Caller," and "Moment of Surrender" (the unlikely 7-minute show-closing ballad) seemed to work well live. Less so were the awful singles "Get On Your Boots" and "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," the latter transmogrified into an intentionally jarring dance-mix version at every show. Allegedly the reasoning was 1) the transition from that silly song to "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was supposed to disorient the crowd, and 2) it got Larry Mullen and his 50-year-old back out from behind the kit. Anyway, I'll keep going with the good stuff:

"Electrical Storm"
This lightweight tune (a bonus track from the Best of 1990-2000 compilation) was debuted in its "remix" form during the tour's first few shows (Barcelona, Nice and Milan) in the ambient part of the set. It didn't last long—only 3 performances—but was a pleasant surprise.

"Your Blue Room"
First major surprise of the non-regular-appearing tunes, this tune is from the U2/Eno/Pavarotti (!) Passengers collaboration. It's the most "U2" song on that album, and it was really cool that the band chose to debut it live (for 10-15 shows on the 2nd, American leg in 2009), but if you've ever heard the song, you'd know it wouldn't work well in a stadium-rock setting. The poor thing bombed. It was slow and boring and not at all what a casual fan would appreciate. Still, bonus points to the boys for trying. They'd get better.

New & Unreleased Songs:
This was THE bizarre-yet-cool surprise of the 2010 European shows: the band debuted several new songs live (and very shaky at times). The results were mixed but for U2, who has often been lashed to production marks and other setlist straitjackets, this was definitely a big deal. The songs were: "Glastonbury" (big fat rawk song written especially for the band's would-be appearance at the festival of the same name—until Bono hurt his back), "Mercy" (outtake from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, appeared on "The Complete U2" iTunes box set) "North Star" (another Atomic Bomb outtake, apparently written for Johnny Cash), and "Every Breaking Wave" (a No Line outtake). The first two were full-band rock-out arrangements, the latter two just Bono and Edge. Also appearing was a lackluster instrumental called "Return of the Stingray Guitar" (?!?) that tried and failed to open the shows with a bang, and "Boy Falls From the Sky," a one-off full-band performance of one of those silly Spider-Man musical songs. It wasn't very good, and structurally resembled another lost classic:

"Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me"
The only good thing about "Batman Forever," this unabashedly over-the-top prog-monster was a regular fixture on the 1997 PopMart tour, where it lurked deep in the encore, and hadn't been played since. The encore was where it showed up in 2010, though, replacing "Ultraviolet" (laser-jacketed Bono and all) for 90% of the shows in 2010 and 2011.

This semi-instrumental (the only lyric is the word "Rejoice") from the forgotten October album was brought in during the Oz/Kiwi leg in late 2010. It's actually pretty cool; Bono had been using a regular part of the set "MLK" to "Walk On" to talk about the imprisoned Burmese leader An San Suu Ki, and agitate via Amnesty International for her release. She was, of course, released from custody in November 2010—and so the band replaced that bit in the set with a reason to "rejoice." It stayed in the set until the tour's end—and was played many more times than it ever had been in 1981, the year of its release.

"Even Better than the Real Thing"
A Zoo TV and PopMart staple, "Real Thing" had sporadic appearances during Elevation in 2001, and then not much else until 2011—when it came back big as the set opener in South America and then the USA. Rearranged with a robo-disco beat and the slide guitar solo first, it was an instant jolt of energy, especially since the 2010 shows had struggled to come up with a kickass opener (the aforementioned "Stingray Guitar").

Major, major surprise—like "Real Thing," added in South America early 2011 and retained for the USA shows—the woozy title track from U2's experimental 1993 album had been attempted and then quickly abandoned as a bad job during Zoo TV. This time, however, it worked well (despite being shortened by a verse) in the slot that used to belong to "The Unforgettable Fire." Like that song too, though, "Zooropa" was probably trotted out to promote the upcoming re-release of its parent album (along with Achtung Baby) later this fall. Even so, it was a whiplash-inducing WTF of a surprise, and became a set staple until tour's end.

"The Fly"
Not exactly a stranger to U2's live shows (it regularly featured on Zoo TV, Elevation, and Vertigo), my favorite of all U2 songs was debuted way late in the tour—June 2011 in Anaheim. Coincidentally, that was the show I blew off and didn't go to (as I've said before). Whatever. Anyway, the song lost none of its skronky fuzzy freakiness—but again, I think it was unveiled for two reasons: the re-release of Achtung Baby and inclusion in the band's Zoo-themed festival set at Glastonbury 2011.

Now, it goes without saying that the rest of every 360° show was generally filled with what you'd expect: insanely expensive and probably excessive light/sound/stage production coupled with their overplayed, bombastic (and sometimes awesome) '80s hits, a few token '90s hits and several bland '00s hits. Considering all that, and the sheer length of this tour, it's a goddamn miracle that the above songs were played at all. Come to think of it, the weirdest aspect might just be that "Bullet the Blue Sky," their perennial guitar-freakout live workhorse monster, wasn't played at all on this tour. Not as strange as if "Streets" or "Pride" were dropped (though the latter was for long stretches at a time), but still. Live U2 without "Bullet" took some getting used to.

Anyway, that's that. I promise to get back to my own stuff. Finally, here's the entry for this month's 20-years-of-Achtung Baby, track 8 ~ "Mysterious Ways" (which also showed up frequently in the current tour set):

Watch the belly-dancer. You are getting sleepy. Okay, maybe that's just me. Time to hit the sack.

Update: Ho Lee Sheet: "Baby Grows Up"

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