There’s something about the energy of a world-class rock band playing to a throbbing throng of 40,000 people in a stadium. It’s infectious and a rare opportunity to people watch.
So it was with the Irish band U2 Wednesday night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Normally, I would watch them on TV to avoid the obligatory expense and congestion of getting to and from such a huge venue, but the first on-stage performance of The Joshua Tree piqued my interest. It is the 30th anniversary of the time I saw them perform it last in 1987.
It was in Indianapolis and I happened to be there visiting family. I had had just started my career as a junior attending at St. Francis at the time. The event was at the then Market Square Arena that I think might have held about 15,000 souls. U2 was not nearly as famous as they are now and the event was not sold out. I had a good seat.
As a personal aside, at the end of the concert when the lights came up, I happened to turn to face a kid sitting next to me and we caught each other’s eye for a moment. I was 44 years old starting my life and he couldn’t have been more than 18 starting his. We silently connected for a moment, smiled at each other and went on our way. I thought about that encounter all the way home in my car, ultimately to pull out a sheet of paper & pen and write a hasty poem about the encounter, I will provide at the end of this missive for anyone interested.
I loved that album and still do. I think The Joshua Tree is among the top collections of incredible music ever put on vinyl. It transformed a post-punk U2 to a world-class phenomenon where they reside today, but they never matched that album again. U2 is a very unique band if for no other reason that they continue to like and respect each other from the time they started playing together in high school in Dublin. That’s VERY unusual. The never lost the focus that made them great.
But at age 57, the heart and soul of U2, Bono (Paul Hewson) is getting a little long in the tooth for these kinds of gigs. These days, he’s more of a full time social and political activist. He’s always been that way but nowadays, he has a lot more money to plug into it. They’ve been doing this for a long time, not as long as the Rolling Uglies, but long enough to where it’s getting just a little strained. I think that the Foo Fighters, only a few years younger, have ascended to that rarified air maybe gently pushing at them. But, all that aside, so begins my many complaints with this gig.
Firstly, it was expensive. Very expensive to get seats where much can actually be seen live. That’s just the way it is for stadium performances of any stripe. The closer to the podium, the more expensive it got. I was willing to sport for this expense because I really wanted to “see” the band. So perusing the seating map of Heinz field, I selected two seats that would be to the side, closely visualizing the stage at about a 45 degree angle, halfway up. Perfect vantage according to the map.
Then came parking. Oh, you want to park? Maybe somewhere less than a mile from the stadium? Well, those spots are “available” at exponentially increasing prices. So more money outlay, all pretty smoothly from StubHub by the way. Legalized scalping but necessary to get any efficiency in a huge congested area.
Safety measures at the arena were in place of course. No purses over a few inches in length. No full sized cameras. Metal detectors for all. iPhones OK. Close observation of everyone entering. However, once inside, I didn’t see any police. The stadium is exceptionally well laid out, with plenty of bathrooms and food between every entrance to the seating area. A hot dog and small coke $11.25.
Once in the seating area, I found that the stage had been moved forward significantly from where it was supposed to be on the previous map. From my vantage, I was looking at the stage from a 90-degree angle, unable to see the huge screen behind them. The actual performing area was far enough away that no details could be made out. The promoters should NEVER have allowed these seats to be sold, and there were only a few there. No one to my right, even further out. These were terrible seats.
Then to add insult to injury, when the band emerged at about 9 pm, they played their first set from a “B Stage” on the opposite side of the field!! It might as well have been an ant colony from where I was. The people had had less expensive seats on the other side of the field had incredible views and the “standees” were right next to the stage. I was furious. The band should never have allowed this insult to those on the opposite side of the field.
They did eventually move to the center stage to play the Joshua Tree standards but they weren’t playing them the way they were on the album and I know every note on the album. It’s probably impossible to play a complex studio album live anyway but it wasn’t the same and it showed. I was disappointed. The iconic song “Streets with no name” was done much, much better in 2009. Please watch it all the way through. It’s spellbinding.
The musicology of the band was pretty well preserved. Bono hit the high notes pretty well, better than Roger Daltrey I think. The Edge (Dave Evans) played masterfully from his guitar effects rig, as complex as a Boeing 747 dashboard. Bass player Adam Clayton was typically reserved. But the really interesting observation was the drummer Larry Mullen Jr. He was the hardest working man on the stage. He was amazing, in constant motion, working all of the skins to perfection. Neal Pert of Rush is considered a “greater” drummer but he has a stage full of drum kit completely surrounding him. Mullin has a “standard” kit and he uses all of it to perfection.
Here’s a passable previous performance of my favorite song off the album: “One Tree Hill”, not as good as the vinyl but showing off the entire band. This is a truly great song; one of the songs that made them stars, I think.
All things considered, I was very disappointed. I think the band is losing its musical edge as Bono spouts some of his political displeasure from the stage and increasing pyrotechnics slowly displaces intricacy. I paid a lot for really crummy seats that the promoters knew were crummy when they sold them. The band favored one side of the arena, stiffing the other side. They surely must have known this in advance.
I give this event a miserable one and a half of five bright lights. Be very careful before you buy tickets to this event. Find out more about seating before you lay a lot of money out.
REFLECTIONS AT A U-2 CONCERT
“Warily we fix each other,
this testament to my immortality and I.
All of fifteen, a shock of blond hair,
jacket collar insouciantly upturned.
I stand a paradox to him.
Similar in garb, but with an air of cynicism
born of war and pestilence,
The burden of human life balanced upon my fragile whims,
and having been to a county fair or two.
When I became a man, I did not put aside childish things.
He weighs this curiosity in silence,
portending a specter of myself in another lifetime,
for now an intruder in his world.
The band dispenses promises of hope and fulfillment;
deafening undercurrents finding common ground within us,
plucking his imagination as it once did mine.
But that was another time, another world.
I thoughtfully study technical nuances.
He conjures revelations of peace and love from nonsense,
and eyes me with curiosity
and rejoins me with an unexpected smile.
Behold my apocalypse,
this child, father to the man, prophesy yet to be fulfilled,
destined to go forth into the darkness, as I have done,
and keep the candle burning”.
David Crippen, MD, FCCM
University of Pittsburgh (Ret)