Possible Hints: Upcoming U2 Tour

I finally received my copy of From the Ground Up: U2360° Tour Official Photobook – U2.com Music Edition.  As a member of the U2.com ‘club’, this book/photos/CD compilation was a benefit for membership renewal. I wanted to make sure my membership was up-to-date so that I can have access to pre-sale tickets for the next tour. Considering that the next tour will be an arena tour, general admission floor tickets (assuming they’ll have GA), will be harder to come-by since it’s a smaller ticket allocation compared to larger number available for football stadium pitches. Lately, Bono, Edge, and Larry have been quoted about a summer or fall release of their new album. If the new album is released later this summer as the band mentioned, then ticket sales for a possible opening spring 2014 tour will commence this fall/winter.

At any rate, as I was reading From the Ground Up, I was mining for possible hints on the next tour since the book interviews the band, senior designers, and long-time stage crew members. What I found interesting was that planning for the subsequent tour usually happens at the end of a tour.  According to the book’s author, Dylan Jones:

“The ideas that Bono had for the next U2 tour sounded as though they had been percolating for some time, ideas that were given more credence from being discussed during his convalescence. That percolating would be ongoing,” (p. 247).

U2’s long-time sound engineer, Joe O’Herlihy furthers this point:

“Bono in particular tends to think about the next tour at the end of the one he’s on, while everything’s fresh. It’s important to think about while you’re doing it. The feeling you get from performing in front of thousands of people gradually wears off, so to fully understand it you need to make decisions when you’re actually in the middle of it. When you’re away from [the tour], you actually forget what it feels like.” (p. 246).

In this case, U2 was already considering an indoor arena tour the next time around. I think everyone was quite spent after a 2.5 year outdoor tour, including the band, crew members, and traveling fans. This was reiterated by Adam:

“I think we’re psychologically prepared for not playing outdoors next time. We’ll do an indoor tour, but until the songs and the identity of that project come together we won’t have an idea of what the production will be. We tend to go indoors after a stadium tour and we tend to strip it down, and we want to make it more about the music and less about the production. That’s my instinct, anyway,” (p. 239).

Moving back indoors is unsurprising considering that the band had surpassed the Rolling Stones as the biggest touring act in the world. There is no one else to beat except themselves. To try to exceed the 360° tour would be a herculean task, not to mention self-aggrandizing. Arthur Fogel, CEO of Global Touring at Live Nation provided some interesting insights:

“Personally I think the encore is going to be easier. I think that the pressure was much greater to bring this home as an ultimate success. Now that they have done it, it opens up a whole realm of possibilities in terms of what to do next. As they’ve gotten to the top of the mountain, they can scale back, go back to arenas, and do a different type of show. In terms of size and scale there’s nothing to prove,” (p. 239).

Since Live Nation was the company that organized the 360° tour, Fogel would have a grasp of the practicalities of an arena tour.

“…I think it offers up that flexibility to go to different location; to mix it up and maybe do something in a few places, rather than touring it. Having said that, there are territories in the world that the band is still to visit; they’ve never been to South East Asia. And so I think next time we have that opportunity to create a more flexible production that can go smaller if we want, bigger if we want. And because of the flexibility get to places that we couldn’t get to on this tour because of economic realities,” (p. 239).

I have met a few U2 fans from South East Asia who traveled far and wide to catch the 360° tour (i.e. Makiko from Japan and Djundi from Indonesia). They represent the many fans in their respective countries and region who did not get a chance to see U2 on the last tour. U2 have been to Japan on past tours – Vertigo, PopMart, ZooTv-Zoomerang, Lovetown and War.  Having an arena set-up would make it financially feasible to transport the concert equipment and have shows in that part of the world. It would also allow U2 to visit countries they have not played yet, like Singapore or Hong Kong as Coldplay did with their arena show during their Viva La Vida tour in 2008. In other parts of the world, like Latin America, the demand to see U2 would be quite large and could see more cities added like Guadalajara, Bogota, and Bueno Aires. However, in cities likes these and in Europe, I would imagine U2 would follow the same touring pattern as Vertigo, and revert back to a simple stadium set-up to facilitate the sheer number of fans on a football ground.

As a quick aside, I was quite pleased to read in the book that the best shows on the 360° tour were in Latin America. Having been to the São Paulo and Mexico City shows, I can attest that the mood had a more exciting vibe in the air.  Considering the vast majority of these audiences did not have English as their primary language, it was quite inspiring to hear the entire stadium to sing every word to some of the songs.  The participation of 70-110,000 people was thrilling. For Adam, South America was his favourite leg of the tour:

“By common consensus the best gigs of the tour were the Spanish and South American ones that had the feistiest, most expectant crowds. In those parts of the world, the audience really does come to be part of the communal event, rather than just come and ‘see a show.’ […] When you go to places like South America where you might get one big show like us through every two years, they must see a concert that a lot of people turn out as a cultural event. In South America, it’s like lighting gunpowder,” (p. 227).

With an indoor arena tour on the horizon, what would the production look like? As mentioned earlier by Adam, the concept will not be crystallized until the album is complete. However, the macro design (i.e. stage and lighting) should already be in the works. In the lead up to 360°, the idea of an in-the-round stadium stage was conceived at the end of the Vertigo Tour:

“As the last leg of the Vertigo Tour drew to a close in Honolulu in December 2006, Bono and the band’s production designer were already considering what they would do to follow it up, and what the next U2 show might look like. With the aid of some forks and some forbidden fruit, and inspired by the Theme Building at LAX, they set to work,” (p. 43).

As we have seen with previous tours, U2 were always the technological innovators of stage design. “People come to U2 shows to see what the future will look like,” said Willie Williams, U2’s long-time set designer (p. 60). ZooTV ushered in the wide use of television screens on stage and the ubiquity of the B-Stage. PopMart took video screens to a whole new level and stretched it across the end-field of a football pitch. Williams admitted that “the Vertigo show was the first thing that I had designed that hadn’t really advanced the form, whereas ZooTV and PopMart were these quantum leaps in the form of what a rock show is. And all that stuff gets immediately plagiarized by everybody else,” (p. 60).

The book makes it clear that U2 not only want to conquer the box office, but to also be innovators of the concert form. “On every tour we’ve done, we’ve been the first people to use a given technology,” (Bono, p. 61). As a concert goer, this makes going to U2 shows all the more interesting. According to Mark Fisher, U2’s stage architect, fans may have some advanced, innovative lighting to look forward to on the next tour.

“On the Vertigo Tour we originally wanted a three dimensional cloud filled with very tiny LED pixels, but the technology wasn’t ready. It became obvious it wasn’t going to be tiny pixels on filaments; it was basically going to be tennis balls on washing lines. But these things exist now – I saw one in Zurich train station,” (p. 64). Could these NOVA LED lights be something manufactured on a larger, customized scale for a U2 concert?

It is quite possible that existing designs can inspire and be scaled, since there is a precedent for it. After the 360° stage was conceptualized, Frederic Opsomer, a Belgium based designer (who has worked with U2 since Zoo TV), was asked to find a way to incorporate video into the claw-like structure. The book narrates the string of events between Mark Fischer and Willie Williams that led to the creation of the expandable, conic screen for the 360° tour. The collaborative approach with Chuck Hoberman and his mathematical models for expandable structures eventually led to the custom-built screen by October 2008 (p. 63).  If and how U2 will use the NOVA LED lights is not known to the public. But I would not be surprised if U2 capitalized on the new technology and customize it for their concert.

Whichever stage design and lighting the bands decides to use for the next tour, there will be no shortage of demand for tickets. For me, they could perform on any makeshift stage and I’d be content. It’s the music and community that is of greater importance. Nonetheless, there is something to be said about the production that can enthrall the neutral or ‘average’ audience member. Indeed, U2 acknowledge that their concerts presents an opportunity to reach new fans:

“Not everyone is a U2 fan, but not only do they appeal to U2 fans, but also appeal to people who don’t necessarily like any other sort of music, and the people who make up the crowd at a U2 show might not normally go to another concert all year. Because each time U2 goes out on the road, they attempt to reinvent the rock experience, and each time they succeed,” (p. 224).

There have been numerous times I have brought friends to their U2 concert, and knew of them as one of those radio-hit bands. But after seeing the 360° production, they claim it was the best concert they have ever seen. Hopefully, those same sentiments will be expressed next spring, when U2 ventures out with their traveling circus.

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