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FIVE NIGHTS WITH U2 AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, 2015

Posted on 10 August 2015 by Caryn Rose (0)

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U2’s Innocence and Experience Tour arrived in New York at the end of July for an eight-show run, the longest run the band had ever done in one place before. I’d opted in to four of the eight nights, justifying it by saying that eight shows in my own city would allow me to forgo the time and expense of traveling elsewhere in order to see more than one show. Some of you reading this will think I am insane; others will think me lightweight.

(Also, please keep in mind that originally, when the tickets went on sale, the band insisted that shows that fell on back-to-back nights would feature two completely different set lists, a statement at which you should in fact be congratulating me for my restraint.)

JULY 18, 2015
GA Floor, South Side

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I’d been planning to queue early in order to get a good spot on the general admission floor, but a chronic, awful cough that’s haunted me for weeks meant I couldn’t manage more than to show up when doors open, and hope for the best. This ended up being about center ice, with my back against the railing around the (Red) Zone enclosure (the premium area for those who paid more as a donation to the band’s HIV/AIDS prevention charity). But what would have been an average position at a standard concert turns out to be a very good one for Songs of Innocence and Experience. It’s such an enormous and non-traditional setup that there are a lot of great places to watch the show from that aren’t the traditional first 20 rows on the floor.

The show is split between a core setlist that begins with four songs on the traditional, end-of-arena main stage, six songs utilizing the full length runway that splits the floor in half, and five songs at the “E stage,” the round, b-stage platform at the opposite end of the arena and connected by the full floor runway, before the band heads back to the main stage for the encore. My location tonight ends up being perfect for the main stage, the runway, and the video screen. It’s not quite as good for the E stage, but that’s supplemented by video footage on the main screen. The end sum result is that there isn’t a moment of the evening where I don’t feel fully immersed in the show. (Okay, the moments where obnoxious (Red) Zone jerks think they can order a drink at the bar in the enclosure behind me by trying to shove into my shoulder and bark an order weren’t fun.)

I’ve followed the tour’s progression closely since it opened in Vancouver back in May. The miracle of 2015 technology means that I can watch and/or listen to as much of it as I want to. The flurry of opening night Periscope feeds dissolved away, as really, no one wants to hold their phone up all night. But they’re replaced by an app I’d never heard of before, called Mixlr, which every South American fan seems to have on their phone. It’s a live audio streaming software that’s incredibly solid and easy to use, and I’ve listened to just about every night’s show up until the end of the E stage. And while I know a lot about the production, it is so genuinely coplex that all this advance work has done is give a trainspotter type like me a head start.

I am still not expecting Bono to enter the arena from the back, coming in from the dressing rooms on stage left mid-court, climbing onto the E stage, and then walking down the runway singing the infectious opening to “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” acapella, several times, holding the mic up for the audience to answer back. It’s a well-staged piece of theater. I’m not terribly in love with the song, or with the song as an opener, but I understand why they’re using it, and the way it’s staged brings the audience into the story and the performance like a magnetic force.

Slot #2 is the oldies roulette, and tonight we get “Electric Co.” (Red) zone idiots want beer, but I want to pogo so they’ll have to find another place to do it. “Vertigo” in the 3-hole is a gimme, and I wish they’d mix that slot up a bit more, but it’s fun and energetic and participatory, and bolts on nicely to “I Will Follow.” The top four songs serve two main purposes: the setting of the emotional space of the early days of U2, and an auditory sugar rush of the loud and familiar that will hopefully sate the audience long enough to let themselves be brought into the space of the next three songs: “Iris,” “Cedarwood Road” and “Song For Someone.”

Bono sits down at the front of the stage, and has a rap about his childhood, and their childhood, and how the next few songs are going to take you back to the “north side of the city of Dublin,” and how they’re going to show you where he came from. And then he talks about his mother, and her death, and how he never talked to her after she collapsed at her father’s funeral, but how he’s been singing to her ever since. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, writing a song about your mother is a risky thing if you’re in the business of rock and roll, and these are not subjects that an arena audience on a Saturday night is going to have a lot of patience for, but he miraculously knows when to stop talking and start singing, and the audience, equally miraculously, comes right along with him.

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“Can Edge come out to play?” The call of “Cedarwood Road,” the song where Bono disappears into the screen and becomes part of the video. The thing I’m struck most by is how the show doesn’t feel overly staged or choreographed, even though there are definite cues and marks that obviously have had to be hit. The moment at which Edge and Bono are lined up above and below the other feels genuinely organic. And then “Song For Someone,” of the cartoon of young Paul Hewson sitting in his room with the Clash and the Kraftwerk posters on the wall and a familiar lightbulb hanging on the ceiling, Bono telling the story of writing a song to impress the woman who would be his wife, and how he’s still trying to impress her. Or how she would tell him, “It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be.” These are big, open-hearted confessions to give 15,000 people, to give 15,000 cynical New Yorkers every night. But somehow it works.

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The E stage is, as more than one diehard described it to me, the one place where something genuine or unpredictable can happen, which is why so many of them queue to position themselves down there, even if it’s just five songs. Sometimes “unpredictable” is what transpired in Toronto, where a fan in full belly dancing regalia is brought up to dance for “Mysterious Ways,” or a U2 cover band being allowed to take over while their real life doppelgängers watch approvingly from the edge of the stage. It’s also the place for band’s response to those dozens of Periscope feeds night one, where a fan gets to handle a Meerkat-enabled phone for one of the b-stage songs. Some fans have better camerawork skills than others; I joked that if I got up there, I’d just stand in front of Larry Mullen, Jr. the entire time and wait to see what Bono would do.

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But the environment does genuinely add spontaneity, for good and bad. There were a few too many “Let’s pull a fan up who says they can play guitar” moments along the way, resulting in, Bono refusing a “Mysterious Ways” dancer’s request to pull her brother onstage, noting that the band give him a hard time about those incidents. (That didn’t stop him from doing it twice in the 8-show run, both times the guitar player got to leave with the guitar.)

The good—no, amazing— though, was “October,” performed live for the first time since 1989, Bono and Edge on piano. And sure, it’s a beer run for a lot of people, but there’s enough audience paying attention, and enough magic being generated, that some kind of cone of silence hangs over the place and it’s an unbelievable moment.

The back 8 of the set, including the encore, are the parade o’ hits, the songs that most of the audience showed up for. But there is legitimate, tangible energy and movement powering them and the performances feel fresh and powerful, and not like a parade of warhorses marching stately down the avenue. (Even if I could live a happy life if I never had to hear “With Or Without You” again. To be fair, I never liked it, not even back in the day.) “City of Blinding Lights,” “With or Without You,” “Bullet The Blue Sky,” “Pride,” “Beautiful Day,” “Where The Streets Have No Name,” boom, boom, BOOM.

Night one is a good night, with great moments. But we just got started.

JULY 19, 2015
GA Floor, North Side

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I arrived a little bit earlier tonight, and between it being a Sunday and the oppressive heat, the line is shorter so I get a better standing location, this time stage left, Adam’s side, or “North Side,” in SOI tour parlance. I still have the (Red) Zone rail at my back, to keep an old lady propped up, but I’m not anywhere near the bar area. So instead of socialites who are there as a status symbol and demanding drinks over my shoulder all night, I’m surrounded by actual fans.  

The energy night two is different immediately; it is sharper, crisper, the audience is more focused on the band. This is brought home with “Gloria” in the wildcard slot and its instant roar it generates from the crowd. We’re on Adam’s side, and I’m always conscious of those moments where I think, “I am listening to ‘I Will Follow’ and watching the Edge play THOSE guitar chords, Adam Clayton is right there and those are his actual fingers you are watching run up the fretboard in ‘Gloria.’  The band have locked in and found a rhythm, which continues through the entire set. “October” appears at the E stage again, and so does Songs of Innocence deep cut “Volcano.”  Again, the SOI songs just sound so much better, have more life and substance, performed live. “Volcano” is fun and poppy and enjoyable. “Stuck In A Moment” gets subbed for “Ordinary Love” as the Edge/Bono duet/piano number on the E stage and the solidity of its performance brings home how there are these U2 songs hanging around this year—“Invisible” is the other one—that feel like they get put on the setlist because they are recent and the band thinks they should play them, but the reality is that there are better songs, and better choices, that would also fit contextually.

The Edge is playing with a physicality and muscularity I am not accustomed to. Adam has embodied a true Entwistleian presence onstage, calmly overseeing everything and reacting to none of it, except for the smiles at the front row in front of him. (And the hair is magnificent.) Larry Mullen, Jr. is the rock and the foundation, and is my generation’s Charlie Watts in his power and stoicism and lack of showmanship. And Bono’s voice is absolutely on form tonight, soaring into the rafters, rich and warm, notable on “Iris” and “Song For Someone” and “Stuck In A Moment.” They are all still capable—okay, excellent—musicians. They are all still healthy. There is eye contact and there is an energy created up there between them that remains unmistakable.

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Being a SOI tour veteran after one night, I like knowing where to look on screen and on stage, knowing what’s going to happen next, and making mental notes about what I want to pay more attention to next time around. I love the moments in “Until the End of the World” where Bono embodies a Macphisto-like energy, holding Edge on the palm of his hand, spitting water at him and the audience. I love the character Bono assumes in Raised By Wolves, and the physical conflict and parry between him and the Edge in the middle of the runway. I’m not entirely sold on the connection between UTEOTW and “Raised By Wolves;” my interpretation is that they’re both about dramatic losses of faith, and falls from grace, the latter echoed by the shower of book pages that fall from the ceiling, pages from Dante’s Inferno, Alice in Wonderland, and the book of Psalms, which fans posited has another direct tie to photographs of the streets of Dublin after the bombing referenced in RBW, but in fact have their origins in what happened after the library in Sarajevo was firebombed (this from a fascinating interview with creative director Willie Williams, which is well worth reading if you like this kind of detail).

This show is layered and complex; you could see it 10 times before you’d get it all. You would think that the screens would dictate an interpretation, but they are so massive and there is so much going on that there is no way that they can. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that’s how the video worked on ZooTV and Pop, but it is because of how tightly controlled media is in this day and age. The only disconnect is if you don’t choose to follow Bono around the arena and watch the other three on the main stage; you’ll notice that you’re surrounded by people who are facing the back of the floor, while you’re facing the front.

The back eight are played just about as well as they are ever going to be played; the Garden is bouncing, the room is moving, and just when you think how wonderful it all is, Bono starts singing the words to “Moment of Surrender” from the last album, but the background is something else, and then Edge plays the opening riff to “Bad,” and the hair on my arms stands up, and I am utterly speechless. The last time I heard this song was at Wembley Stadium in 1993, and there is no way you are a fan of this band and do not have indelible memories of the song. It is their “Jungleland,” it is this moment of enormous emotional resonance that is never the same, but is always familiar. I am not a U2 super-fan, by any means, but they are a band I have been with since almost as early as I could have been here in the states, they have always been with me, and they are still here, all four of them, right now.

I finish up my internal moment with “Bad” just in time to get my bounce on to “Streets,” feeling the entire building move with me. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” plays us out, shimmering up to the rafters. It’s an absolutely fantastic show, and I compare the difference between night one and night two to the difference between Opening Day of the baseball season, and the game the next day, which is generally thought of the game for the real fans.

JULY 26, 2015
Section 220, Row 10

Friends of mine arrive from Florida, get on the ticket drop line at the MSG box office, and promptly pick up $35 tickets marked ‘obstructed view’. A few hours later, I get a text from them asking if we want a pair of these tickets, from other fans who bought them as insurance against not getting anything better. Do we want them???

“I’ll go pick up the laundry,” says the boyfriend, running out of the apartment. “View these as Crystal Ballroom insurance tickets.”

Sure, U2 have jettisoned the concept of pairs of shows, but that doesn’t mean you still don’t end up chasing certain songs over the course of eight nights. I was worried that the appearance of “Angel of Harlem” with the Roots the previous Wednesday would mean I missed my chance; I was sad to have missed the Terminator meets Duane Eddy vibe of “Lucifer’s Hands” the next night. But either you go to all of them, or you face the fact that you are going to miss songs you want to hear, because otherwise all you will do is drive yourself crazy.

As noted, our tickets are marked “Obstructed view” but I don’t know what MSG classified as an obstruction, exactly; they were high up but they were also hard stage right, and gave me a perfect view of every element of the production. It was good to be able to see the screen with some distance; it was good to be able to observe the entire production as a whole; and it would end up being the best E stage view I’d have out of all five nights. For $35, these tickets were the well-kept secret of this run.

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I’d used the time in between my shows and the weekend to re-acquaint myself with the new record. I decide that the new songs hold up better live because there is less polish, less smoothing out, less electronic trickery. I do not like Ryan Tedder in particular, at least I do not like him as a producer for a rock and roll band (and Dangermouse aside, this is still a rock and roll band); I do not like the sonic quality of the album as a whole, although I do like the lyrics and I do like the music and I do like the actual songs. I also do not like how the record was released; someone in their organization or Apple gave them very bad advice about how people like to consume music these days, and instead of people being excited about the record, the art and the music were overshadowed by awful jokes and uproar from people who were never going to care about U2 anyway.

On an interview on Sirius XM broadcast at the beginning of August, Larry said that the band viewed what they refer to as ‘The Apple Experiment’ as successful, because he can see younger fans who know all the words to the new songs, but don’t seem to know any of the words to the older songs. In a day and age where you can listen to pretty much every note of music that’s ever existed for free, and don’t have to rely on friends or having enough money to buy everything, I do not understand how they can view that as a success, but that is another subject for another day.

There’s a quote Adam gave Grantland about how for their next record, they might choose to stop caring about what everybody else thinks, and only care about their fans; I think it would be an exceedingly interesting experiment, mostly because I am genuinely curious what they would do, and what that would sound like. You might assume that U2 are irrelevant or hokey or boring (although I don’t think you would have read this far if you did), but the tremendous strength of the fan base in places like South America is astonishing, and overwhelming, and certainly sufficiently profitable for the people in their organization who require money to be made. Just like I discovered when I was in Europe seeing Bruce Springsteen [gratuitous book plug], there are still plenty of places in the world where blues-based traditional rock and roll is still popular, and valued. (Or maybe they’d go all John Cage and Steve Reich on us, but I’d still argue that would be worth listening to.)

Tonight I’m focused on watching the transition from the early songs played under the lightbulb meant to signify the room the band used to rehearse in (as Bono points out, it could have been Adam’s room, or Larry’s room; he’s just the one with the microphone), into the journey through childhood reflected in the “Iris”/“Cedarwood Road”/“Song For Someone,” and then into the intrusion of the outside world as a child growing up in Ireland, specifically, with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and then “Raised By Wolves.” The distance from the floor up in section 220 provides a wider, more holistic perspective to the multimedia and allows you a different appreciation of the careful thematic continuity: with the backstory to RBW being projected on the screen at the end of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” backstory without heavy explanation, a radio broadcast, a single car on the screen, the screen goes dark with the explosion sounding through the arena.

It’s critical to the album and to the performance, but if it was the kind of thing that Bono would have had to verbally explain every night, it would start to feel tired and it would drag the show out. This execution is powerful, moving, and emotional. It’s the answer to the child who confronts Bono later in the show, during “Bullet The Blue Sky”: “Have you forgotten who you are? Have you forgotten where you came from?” Davos or not, this isn’t false emotion or theatrical crocodile tears: this is all coming from a very deep place. They did an uncharacteristically poor job of expressing all of that to the press, but that was probably because they spent entirely too much time apologizing for the album showing up on everyone’s iTunes.

The sound: I am up in the top left-hand corner of the Garden and I can hear absolutely everything, crystal clear, sharp as a bell. U2 sound engineer Joe O’Herlihy created an immersive sound experience for this show, to accompany the unconventional staging, and the sound was fantastic absolutely everywhere I sat. I sat one section over for 12-12-12 (they were the cheap seats) and the sound was not half as good as it was for U2. (The only location I struggled to hear spoken vocals would be the last show, when I was right up against the stage.) I know the media has written glowingly about this but, like the screen and overall production, is a thing that I think they are still not getting enough credit for, because every journalist has to waste column inches reminding the world that U2 put SOI on everyone’s iPhone without permission.

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I gratefully collapsed into my seat at the end of UTEOTW, only for the kid in front of me to solicitously ask if I could see, since he was standing up. I thanked him, but also pointed out that it was intermission and there was nothing to see. I know there’s an intermission because I listen to the damn show every night on Mixlr,  and because I’ve seen annotated set lists and understand the production needs, but I’m reasonably certain that your average civilian at the show does not, and not indicating it in some explicit manner is not helpful to the continuity of the show—especially since the next song is “Invisible,” and not just “Invisible,” it’s “Invisible” being played inside the screen by all four band members. The light show around it is well-executed, but it’s not a particularly good song, and I think it’s a pretty weak way to kick off the second part of the show.

I realize “Invisible” is in the setlist because of the “there is no them, there’s only us” theme that Bono wants to espouse as one of the touchstones of the show, but I didn’t hear him invoke it once at five shows out of eight, and to be honest, there are enough keystones and themes in the show that we don’t need another one. I would have much rather seen “California” in that spot, which would have given us another song from the new record and kept the main emotional plot line moving forward with “there is no end to love.” Fans who saw “California” say it wasn’t performed well, but that just means more rehearsal, not ‘let’s exclude it from the set forever.” If you listen to the acoustic version included in the SOI CD, it’s clear that they are more than capable of performing a rearranged version of the song.

I also was not a fan of “Even Better Than The Real Thing” being performed inside the screen. It’s a big noisy song that generates a huge amount of energy, and instead, it felt trapped and constrained. In terms of staging and presentation, I would have rather had it back on the main stage, and then have the band move down the runway to the E stage than emerge out of the screen, it would have had just as much  impact.

This was the night Lady Gaga showed up for “Ordinary Love” on the E stage, and this now makes it twice I have seen Lady Gaga with U2. I respect her as an artist but I just do not care, and I think she over-sang, to be honest. I also could have made a list of 60 other musicians I would have rather seen as guests, and will remain heartbroken that the extended “Miss You” snippet introduced at the end of “Crystal Ballroom” in Toronto wasn’t preparation for Jagger and Richards showing up in New York.

During the parade o’ hits, it’s fun to observe the large percentage of the Garden that are on their feet; it’s usually one of the drawbacks to getting stuck upstairs, that people yell at you to sit down. There were plenty of us standing up, dancing, and jumping around at the upper reaches, including both bridges (the new seating areas that are up at the roof of the Garden).

Back tomorrow night for night four.

JULY 27, 2015
Section 111, the Larry Mullen Jr. Special

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I pulled these tickets thinking they were at the other end of the arena, and only afterwards realized I’d bought tickets behind the stage. (In my defense, this was a very stressful ticket pull.) But this wasn’t a problem: behind the stage is one of my favorite places to sit at Madison Square Garden because the seating bowl is so close to the stage, unlike most other arenas. It’s either a perspective you love or you don’t, but I do, and I am all too happy to be here because I am able to look over Larry Mullen Jr.’s left shoulder all night and watch him play. I can see him hit the kick drum, I can observe his set up, I can watch him play all of the songs, watch him on “TWO HEARTS BEAT AS ONE” (emphasis mine) and “I Will Follow” and even “With Or Without You,” which is my least favorite song, but on which he plays tremendously.

“Two Hearts,” which hasn’t been played in 25 years. I thought it was going to be “Out of Control,” but then the baseline is utterly unmistakable. The people around me must have thought I was possessed; a lot of them probably knew the song, but may not know how long it had been since it had been played live last. It was fantastic and they need to play it more often. “Angel of Harlem,” which I haven’t seen since 1993, was something my heart needed to hear, and I am so glad to hear it here, at home, and glad that it wasn’t relegated to the “one and done” list. We just visited Memphis the first time earlier this year, and literally stood in the exact place the band stood when they recorded that song, while everyone else was trying to stand where Elvis stood (although to be fair it was largely the same; the room is not that big)—although to me it will always be more of a New York City song than a Memphis song, Memphis horns or not.

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“Bullet The Blue Sky” was next on my list to observe, and watch carefully, especially from this angle. I am not sure it fits in the set, exactly, or if it’s there because it’s the only way Bono can work some of the themes he touches on what is listed on the teleprompter as “Bullet rant” (another advantage of the rear stage is being able to do something like read the teleprompter, and the boyfriend brought binoculars to do just that. [Don’t look at me like that. It’s interesting]). The theater of Bono turning his mic stand into a shoulder rocket launcher is absolutely stunning. I wasn’t sold on the use of the megaphone (and made jokes about a Mr. Stipe wanting it back) but he seemed to feel more comfortable with it by the third night, and made better use of the stage and the space. But the rant either has to be completely rewritten, or omitted completely, because bringing in lines like “a man breathes into his saxophone” from the “Joshua Tree” days feels forced, even if the followup—“and everyone stares into their cellphones”—is perfectly apt. I’m not sure that part of the show has to echo back to make people understand it. The footage of Wall Street is stunning on its own. I’m curious how this rant will transform now that the band is moving on to Europe. (I’m equally curious how many Mixlr feeds we can count on over there.)

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The crew had Larry’s drum setup in place before I could even notice, just as Bono announced that they were going to do something they had only tried a few times before: “The Troubles”. It requires that he sing against a backing track, since the song is built against the duet with Lykke Li, and Edge can’t sing quite that high. It was definitely unfamiliar to the people around me, but it was well-executed, ethereal, and compelling enough to make them shut up and watch.

There was something definitely off a little tonight; some missteps, some miss-starts. “Invisible” feels very out of sync, and I blame the screen. I wondered if Bono was sick, other fans thought he was having trouble hearing himself in his monitors. Having the crowd start “One” is a total train wreck, it’s as though different sections were singing different parts of the song, at the same time. Bono stops us: “The rhythm has t’ come from th’ drummer,” he says, pointing at Mr. Mullen. “I’m not a fussy rock star, just picky.”

Four down, one to go.

JULY 31, 2015
GA Floor, North Side

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So many things could have gone wrong on the last night of the U.S. tour. The line could have staged a revolt. Someone could have run ahead, pushing and shoving (although that did happen, just further back). The (Red) Zone could have been let in before the general queue and gotten our spots. But everything went right, and I ended up exactly where I wanted to be, front row at the corner closest to the catwalk, Adam’s side. (Nothing personal against the Edge, but it’s a really popular spot over there, and it’s easier to watch Edge from the other side anyway.)

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The Springsteen rumors amp up, but they have been amped up for the entire run. People were telling me he would be there on a night where his tech was spotted at a bar in Asbury Park, setting up during a soundcheck at which Bruce songs were played. I got text messages on the Wednesday night (when I was not anywhere near MSG, but rather at a Muscle Shoals tribute show to see Sam Moore), because someone who is friends with Steve Van Zandt tweeted that the special guests would be amazing. This would not be the first time Bruce would come see the band play and not get on stage.

But, I get ahead of myself.

A good thing about Innocence and Experience is that the show generally starts on time, and you don’t have to sit through an opening band. You watch the crew set up the stage; you check Twitter for celebrity spotting. The technicians check the instruments, Dallas Schoo turns on the Edge’s amps to warm them up, and Stuart Morgan walks around the stage with Adam’s bass on, playing a bass line that sounds suspiciously like “Born To Run.” Hillary and Bill arrive.

The opening tape could be my iPhone on shuffle, whether it was the version playing the early punk hits, or the more grunge-flavored one that swapped in halfway through the NYC run. But we all spring to attention as Jay Dee Daugherty’s drum roll spills out through the PA, and Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power” fills the arena. I am ride or die for Patti Smith; she saved my life in high school, and I consider myself beyond lucky that I still have the chance for her to give me a spiritual beatdown every year when I get to see her play her December residency somewhere. (I consider it a mark of maturity and restraint that I didn’t rip the head off of the fan standing next to me the first night who tried to tell me that I only knew the words to PHTP because I’d been at the SOI shows.)

Sometimes, the second to last night of a run, or a tour, is the night to remember, the night you wish you were at. But everyone said the crowd was bad, and strange Thursday night, and the only thing I am sorry that I missed was the Lou Reed tribute, and “Satellite of Love,” right out of ZooTV, and the dedication to Laurie Anderson. (I am not sorry about missing Paul Simon, and ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ is the only part of the set I truly dislike and find unnecessary.)  But I needn’t have worried: tonight was running on all cylinders from the second Bono began the call-and-response to “The Miracle,” when the roof threatened to blow off the top of the building from the volume of the response. It was a loud night; it was a strong night; it was a night where the North Side challenged the South Side as to who could jump harder and higher. (I think we won, but I am biased.)

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If you want to ask me if 36 hours of line shenanigans was worth it to be in this spot for this show, I will tell you without hesitation that it was. It was intense and emotional and loud no matter where you were, and it was all of those things x100 in the very front. I have been front row for U2 in the distant past (seriously, like October and War,) but that was before Bono was Bono. Out of all of the band members, being that close to him was the experience that felt the oddest, and yet the most fascinating. I still worry that he is fragile post-bike accident, that even with private jets and four-star hotels that his constitution will not hold up to a long tour. I note, again, that his leather jacket is too big for him, sleeves folded up and not tailored neatly, wonder if it is his from back in the day, when Guggi snuck them all in to see the Ramones at the State Cinema in Dublin.

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I watch the eye contact between the band members, between Edge and Bono, the eye contact that is part of the normal course of doing business onstage, and then the eye contact that goes beyond that, the eye contact that is about connection and about the years of generating the energy that is U2. I watch Adam come to the edge of the stage and smile at the fans all night, really smile, making eye contact, starting to remind me of Billy Zoom of X and how he interacts with fans. I watch the technical production elements, I can’t help it, I can’t be that close and not take advantage of it: watch the stairs coming down, watch Edge running up (while he’s playing guitar. I find that particularly impressive), watch Bono disappearing into the “rabbit hole”. I watch the band’s security in action; all four of them require the level of personal security that, say, only Bruce Springsteen requires when he is onstage. I can’t see much of Larry besides his eyes peeking out over the top of a cymbal, which is the only unfortunate element of this particular position.

The man, the hair. Adam Clayton #u2ietour

And last but not least, when you are that close you are completely immersed head to toe in the music, in the songs and the guitar and bass and drums blasting at me from the amps on the stage, surrounding me in the arena. I yell; I sing; I dance; I wave my arms in the air. I laugh hysterically because it is so absolutely unbelievable to witness the show from this location; I cannot stop smiling for one second. The only thing that suffers sonically is the between-show patter when Bono is on the runway or at the E stage. And you also cannot see any of the visual elements on the screen at all whatsoever. It’s a price I’ll happily pay tonight.

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The first four songs are rocket fuel, “Out of Control” in the wild card slot, and accurate for the audience this evening. The people behind the stage were on their feet and losing their shit. Raised By Wolves drama is more intense down here, and “Until The End of The World” is the best I have seen it since 1993. It is huge and enormous and overpowering, and I am a wreck by the end of it, grateful for the wall descending and a moment to catch my breath. I collect hugs from friends new and old at intermission.

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Unless you are standing up against the center runway rail so that you can lean over and see your way down the security gap, you will see very little of the E stage. I was sorry I missed the South American fans who dressed up like U2 as the Village People in the “Discotheque” video, sorry we didn’t get a little bit of that song somehow during the end of “Desire,” the song that was the Meerkat song for the night. But even “Desire” was full of heat and energy and rhythm, and I can hear Edge and Bono singing harmony together, and I love “Desire” and I honestly love Rattle and Hum and think it gets a bad rap. Bono tells a story about how the Edge went out for Halloween on Venice Beach dressed as the Edge, and no one knew it was him.

“What are we doing now?” Bono asks, possibly seriously. And then, a series of unmistakable chords on acoustic guitar, and the heavens opened up and the stars rained down, and “It’s a special night; we’ve a special treat, for for anyone who cares to remember back this far.” ME! ME! I DO! “WOO HOO,” I yell in triumph, arms in the air. It is “Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl,” and I have not heard “Party Girl” live since 1987, when I called in sick to work and ran down to Philadelphia to see one more show, one last show, I was going to be moving overseas and I was worried about when I’d see U2 next, I was broke but I did it anyway, taking NJ Transit to SEPTA (which was the old, cheap backdoor into the city), and finding a ticket at face value from a fan at the box office, and dancing to “Party Girl” in the aisle on the floor of the Spectrum. It is my favorite song; it will always be my favorite song. It is my best U2-friend’s favorite song, and although she lives on the other side of the ocean, I make sure to Tweet at her even though it’s the middle of the night where she lives. She is there with me, too, no matter what time it is. There is a bottle of champagne, just like old times; Larry will abscond with it later, back to the mainstage.

I am a wreck again.

I regain composure to get through “Every Breaking Wave,” amazed that they would allow this jewel of a song to get compressed into MOR sludge on the record, and hold my breath during “Bullet The Blue Sky,” Edge doing battle with six strings, singing “Pride” as loud as I can, continually amazed how much Bono gets away with on this one (“I can’t breathe, I’m an American” he sneaks in more nights than not, during the “Hands That Built America” reference that takes us from BTBS into “Pride”). Bono is down at the E stage when he works a “Hungry Heart” snippet into “Beautiful Day,” and I wonder if that is all we are going to get.

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I feel like I am drowning in euphoria and happiness at the intro to “City of Blinding Lights,” an intro that so perfectly captures the champagne bubbles rising feeling in your stomach of the first time you glimpse the city skyline, or see it on an important night, or see it on a night where you need to be reminded of why you live here.  Bono keeps taking out his in-ear monitors to hear the crowd properly, and I know it is not just me, that we are that loud, that there is that much energy in the air. I am ready to take off well before Bono exhorts us at the beginning of “Streets,” “Come on! Let’s see ya!” I cannot see the stage through the tears in my eyes. I am not sure where I am finding the energy to bounce like I am in my 20s, but it is effortless, the energy of the floor and the stands and the people up against the roof in the bridge seats carrying us all. “Streets” tonight is a steamroller, it is God and the universe and the solar system walking through Madison Square Garden. It is visceral, physical, tremendous, the middle bridge where Larry hits that martial drum roll before hitting cruising altitude and the Edge weaves in and out like a jet fighter. If you ever witnessed this performance, or one anywhere like it, you would not ever be able to be cynical about this band, and if you were, I would feel sorry for you.

I am barely recovered from this, when Bono starts talking about someone who gave them a reason to be a band, a reason to continue to be in a band, and I know who he is talking about but I am still really not convinced, except that OH MY GOD THAT IS BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN WALKING IN FROM STAGE RIGHT, AND HE IS CARRYING A GUITAR.

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If you have ever read this site, you know that I have spent decades writing about and seeing him perform. Seeing him with U2 was a bucket list item, and I thought it would never happen, until I ended up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary show (and got Patti Smith to boot; she did not show up at this run, btw, because she was in Europe the entire time). I was in Times Square when Bruce subbed for Bono last December.

And, well, I am here right now. I am in the front row, waving at Bruce: Hey there, buddy. Nice to see you. Been a while.

I guess you can criticize this part of the show (as some did) for not being something new or original, but that would just be foolish. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is church music. It is rock and roll gospel. It was written for a large crowd to sing, and Bono doesn’t have to ask the Garden twice. It’s a great song for Bruce to sing, and he is singing it well, and it is good to hear him, and the crowd is loving it. But then the improbable happens, and Bono walks over to Edge and says something to him, and then goes back to Bruce and tells him, and Adam kind of peers over at Edge’s hands and then there’s a glance between him and Larry–and it’s a freaking audible, called on the fly, into “Stand By Me.” Yes, they did this in 1987, the first time Bruce showed up with U2 in Philly. I don’t care. They’re doing it now, and it wasn’t planned, and probably wasn’t rehearsed (the intel I had said they’d rehearsed “Promised Land,” if that was even reliable).

But you can count on Bruce Springsteen to know the words to “Stand By Me,” and all of Madison Square Garden also seems to know the words to “Stand By Me,” and we’re singing “Stand By Me” with U2 and Bruce Springsteen on the last night of the eight-show run, and pretty much no other surprise that turned up is going to come close (although a close second, easy, to the Roots and ‘Angel of Harlem,’ the only guest I’m sorry I missed).

Bruce departs swiftly, and Bono steps to the mic again, telling us about Dennis Sheehan, the late, beloved tour manager who passed away in May: “He drove the van. He drove us up and down streets and cities and towns in this country…we feel very much that he is here tonight, and so we are gonna sing a song that he made famous, called ‘40.’” That’s when I notice that, of course, Edge and Adam have switched instruments (I am sorry I did not get to see it happen), and the bass notes rumble in. I cannot think of another band that has a closing number like “40,” that mixture of sacred and profane and band and audience. I have seen it before and I have seen it as recently as 2005, I saw it the last night of PopMart in North America in Seattle, and I saw it on October and I saw it on Joshua Tree, and it is heart-stopping and it is awesome and it is beautiful. It is just beautiful.

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And at the end, Bono picks up the spotlight; Edge, still playing, heads down the center runway, followed by Adam, Bono sending the light right down the middle, illuminating the walkway. The audience sings, and sings, and keeps singing. Bono asks for the lights to be cut, Larry keeps playing, and the spotlight points at different areas of the arena. And then th, the final drum flourish; then the drums halt, Larry heads down the runway, spotlit by Bono at the other end, as we keep singing. The audience knows what to do, and it is loud and I don’t know how loud it is anywhere but down where I am, but the audience is singing “How long, to sing this song” and it’s all I hear. The lights stayed off for a good long while, and at least on the floor we were singing and singing and singing, not wanting it to be over, not wanting it to end.

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Then the house lights came back up, and the carriage turned back into a pumpkin, and the (sigh) Macklemore song (“Same Love”) that was played at the end of every other night, squelching any other chances for the refrain to echo through the stairwells and the lobby as we went out into the night. As soon as I could peel myself off the rail, I hugged my new friends, and hugged the boyfriend, and stepped onto the floor and turned circles, “Woo hoo!”-ing in triumph, skating through the bottles and flattened beer cups like Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, still stunned at everything that had happened, feeling like the music was still resonating through my bones.

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They’ll be back, and you should be there when they do. See you in Berlin in September.

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IF YOU LIKED THIS…you might like to read my first novel, about how a woman’s life changes the night Joey Ramone dies.

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