“prelude to 110 or 220/women of the world” – jim o’rourke (1999)

R-858706-1457737506-6931.jpegLast week, I went to see U2 perform two nights at the United Center in Chicago.  Since seeing U2 perform live for the first time in Nashville in 2011, I make it a point to see them every time they play near me.  Even if you aren’t a huge fan of their music, their live shows are incredibly entertaining and engaging with a production value that stands above the rest.  You also get a heavy dose of reality as U2 injects political statements into their performance and adds urgency to issues that many are not aware of or choose not to engage with.

Since Donald Trump became the United States president in 2017, U2 has ramped up the political message of their live shows.  Specifically, they have done so in a way that counteracts much of Trump’s ideology and the actions of his administration. Many of the policies that have come from Trump have been hurtful and directed towards the marginalized people of this country.  By attacking women and people of color, Trump has made it clear that the America he envisions is one filled with white men who support him.

Before the show begins, the large screen that sits in the middle of the arena displays animated protest signs.  The messages on the posters advocate for equal rights for women, refugees, those stricken by poverty, and other groups that have been affected by the increase of nationalism and white supremacy elevated by Trump.  The signs have sayings on them like “#NeverForget,” “Freedom Justice Equality,” and “Refugees Welcome” displayed over imagery that promotes the idea of people of different background coming together.

Throughout the show, U2 continues to remain on message whenever they tie in politics into their songs and performances.  The current tour, iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour, featured the first live performance of “Acrobat” from their 1991 album Achtung Baby.  Leading into that song, Bono uses an iPad and face recognition software to (awkwardly and with glitches) manifest the façade of Mr. MacPhisto over his own face and delves into a monologue about his devilish work he has done in recent years while existing away from the public eye since his glory days of Zoo TV in the early 1990s.  From Russian collusion to paying off porn stars to the riots in Charlottesville, Mr. MacPhisto declares he does his best work when you believe he doesn’t exist.

As the set continues, Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton head to a different part of the stage while Bono and the Edge remain to perform an acoustic version of “Staring at the Sun from their 1997 album Pop.  This is fourth tour I’ve been too, but this was the very first time I heard a song from U2’s black sheep album in its entirety.  The screen goes blank while Bono and the Edge perform the song on the b-stage standing over a sun that appears on the screen of the stage’s floor.

It seems like such a somber and quiet affair with the audience focused on the two performers with no distractions coming from the screen. However, as Bono sings about not being the only going blind as he stares at the song, the sun they are standing becomes eclipsed.  As this unknown black mass obscures the sun, the large screen shows b-roll footage of white supremacists rioting at Charlottesville.

Admittedly, I was confused by what was happening and a little concerned.  The band has show violent b-roll at shows before, but always scored to heavy and brash sounds that conveys much anger.  Watching Richard Spencer and his followers carrying tiki torches and brandishing signs with hateful messages was troubling.  This event happened less than a year ago and resulted in the death of an activist named Heather Heyer, a woman who died a hero but whose death has become a point of pride for the Alt-Right movement.

After hearing Bono repeatedly belting out about going blind, I started to see the point he was making.  “Staring at the Sun” fades away and Larry begins a rhythmic pounding on his drums.  The hateful men from Charlottesville continue to walk across the giant screen.  This all seems like it is going on far too long.  Then, the band launches into their Martin Luther King, Jr. anthem “Pride (In the Name of Love)” while the footage of Charlottesville disappears in a sudden cut to be replaced by footage of black women marching through Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement and the audience is awash with a cool, calming blue light.  This was welcomed relief after watching the footage of the hateful white men.

As awkward as that sequence was, I understood the message.  It was harsh and disturbing, but these are disturbing times.  This was the band’s way of wearing their feelings on their sleeves.  We see the show opening with progressively liberal protest signs then show us what blind hatred looked like, so what was next?

The band plays through two songs from their recent album Songs of Experience.  Back to back, Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” are declarations and pleas for America to return to its former glory of being a beacon of hope and prosperity for those who need it the most.  Now whether America really lived up to that standard is a point of valid criticism, but the country isn’t doing itself any favors by emboldening those who seek to actively destroy those ideals in the name of nationalism under the guise of patriotism.

The band then leaves the stage to take a break before the encore. During this time, a video plays on the main screen.  A woman walks into view (the Edge’s daughter) and stands still while various inspirational messages are scrawled around her.  Sayings like “Poverty Is Sexist” and None of Us Are Equal Until All of Us Are Equal” come into view and are applauded by the audience.  This is the messaging of the show coming in full circle.

During this video, the song “Prelude to 110 or 220/Women of the World” by Jim O’Rourke is playing.  Released in 1999 on his studio album Eureka, this song is a rendition of “Women of the World;” a 1983 folk song first recorded by Ivor Cutler and Linda Hirst.  The song consists of a single line repeated throughout and accompanied by folk guitar. “Women of the world take over, ‘cos if you don’t the world will come to an end, and it won’t take long.”

O’Rourke is a musician and producer best known for his with Sonic Youth and Wilco.  His version included in U2’s presentation is a remixed version keeping O’Rourke’s vocals and arrangement, but with added backing vocals and instrumentation with contributions from submissions by fans and singer Madison Ryann Ward.

It is a rather pleasant song with a great message behind it.  Even on its own, the presentation was powerful.  However, it served as a great bookend to the show’s political message and a great segue into “One” which is not only one of the band’s most popular songs but also an anthem of sorts (that require some liberal interpretations of the song’s original meaning).

U2 are not holding any punches when it comes to increasing the visibility of women in their show.  I had seen this when they toured in 2017 for the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree.  On that tour, they featured a video collage of famous women during “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” a short film featuring a Syrian refugee girl named Omaima, and many declarations that we turn “history” into “HERstory” during a performance of “Mysterious Ways.”

The band is certainly not blind to what is happening the world.  Dangerous men are disrupting democratic elections, tearing immigrant families apart at the border, and making it national policy to reduce the rights of women domestically.  None of this should have been new to the people who attend a U2 concert.  You see these things all over the news on a daily basis.  However, for some, going to a concert means getting a break from the heartache the media depicts.  And while certainly won’t criticize someone who taking a mental break from these things, I cannot let them turn a blind eye and close their minds.  If art is a reflection of life, we need everyone looking and paying attention and we need our artists to take a stand and help guide us.

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“‘baby’ one” – u2 (2011)

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A lot of people can name their favorite album at the top of their head like that.  However, I am not that way.  When it comes to the albums that mean the most to me, I have had several make their way in my life, be important for a brief period, and then get shelved away to get rediscovered and reloved later on.  That is not to say those albums become less important for me.  It is just that whatever need I had that required them was ultimately fulfilled.  Some of these special albums reappear back in my life more frequently than others.  While I do not have a single favorite album, there is one that returns to me more so than the rest.

When I first became actually aware of U2 was when I was on the cusp of turning 13 and the “Beautiful Day” single dropped.  That was a really big song and it became one of the best in their catalog. I even bought their album All That You Can’t Leave Behind when I visited Ireland in 2001 (perfect).  I was aware of them as an entity and had heard songs of theirs before, but nothing had quite resonated with me until the release of “Beautiful Day” and then I bought a compilation disc of their 90s hits a year later.  After that album release, they fell off my radar for a long time.  I remember 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb being released, but it didn’t have an impact on me.  Neither did 2009’s No Line on the Horizon.  I wouldn’t pick U2 back up during casual listening until late 2009.

I was an intern at Country Music Television at the time and I had my own desk, name plaque, and cubicle which was a really big deal for me at the time.  Working alone at my desk is when I actively started listening to streaming music services.  Pandora was my go to because I liked all the artist and genre customization.  At that time, I was big into the Police (and still am) and their station was always my first pick in a listening session.  As songs would get rated with a thumb up or a thumb down, the recommendation algorithm would change, and then I would get something slightly different as time went on.  Eventually, I started hearing more U2 on my Police Pandora station.

I mostly got cuts for their 1983 live EP Under a Blood Red Sky and that was key.  To this day, as a big fan, I will always say that U2 are better experienced in a live setting.  Listening to cuts from that album opened doors for me because there was an energy and power that wasn’t present on All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  This prompted me to create my own U2 station and that’s when it all started.

On my U2 Pandora station, I, of course, would get the radio hits.  But what captivated me were the deeper album cuts from their 80s and early 90s albums.  I remember hearing “So Cruel” and could not believe it was from the same album as “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Mysterious Ways,” two Achtung Baby cuts that appeared on The Best of 1990-2000 compilation I bought in 2002.  I think this is when I started to transition to appreciating albums as a whole as opposed to selections on compilations (not unique to me as that was the music trend in 2000s).

Before the end of 2009, I would buy my own copy of Achtung Baby and listen to it non-stop.  It was on my iPod. The disc was always in my car’s CD player.  My girlfriend at the time would complain that I was always listening to it.  It had such an impact on me and I just couldn’t stop listening to it.

Achtung Baby, I believe, is the band’s crowning achievement. However, it is also a product of my biggest complaint against the band.  Quite frankly, U2 do take themselves way too seriously and don’t take criticism well.  1987’s The Joshua Tree was a monumental success, but the subsequent album and film release of Rattle and Hum in 1988 painted that band as pretentious devoid of humor.  And the band heard this message loud and clear. Achtung Baby would be the follow-up and even Bono would describe it as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree;” a perfect summation of how reactionary their best album was.

U2’s new image and musical direction for Achtung Baby was miles away from their 80s catalog.  Where the 80s brought them criticism as being too self-righteous, too serious, and too unbelievably reluctant celebrities, the 90s would bring humor, irony, and excess.  This was a band gambling over a decade of hard work on a new direction that could’ve destroyed their career.  And it almost did.

There are a lot of stories about the fighting that occurred while recording Achtung Baby.  Some are truer than others and even the band would play coy about it with the release of the 2011 documentary From the Sky Down which celebrate the 20th anniversary of the album’s release.  While history may have eliminated some details, what remains true is that the band almost broke up recording this album.

What ultimately saved the band during the recording process was the track “One.”  After numerous fights and an ever-increasing tension within the band, the Edge was improvising on the guitar and created what would eventually become the signature track.  “One” was a major hit for the band both critically and commercially and has since become one of their touring staples.  It is an incredible song about coming together while realizing we are not the same.

In 2011, the band reissued Achtung Baby for a 20th anniversary release.  The reissue resulted in five formats; a single disc album, the album with a bonus disc, vinyl, a ten-disc box set, and the ten-disc box set with lots of extra non-music material such as magazines and a pair of sunglasses.  I remember being quite annoyed with the reissue.  Unlike previous reissues from the band, this album was not remastered because it didn’t need it.  However, that wasn’t the problem.  Much of the material had already been previously released and what had not been previously released were only available on the super expensive box sets (the biggest one retailing for $600 at the time).  While the discs included B-sides, single, and remixes, the one disc I wanted as advertised as Kindergarten – The Alternative Achtung Baby; an album containing early versions of all the songs from Achtung Baby.  Referred to as the “baby” versions, this wasn’t Achtung Baby, but more of a Achtung Newborn.  The early versions of these songs were raw and unpolished.  As an avid fan of what would become the final album, it was always interesting to hear what had and hadn’t changed.  In some cases, the songs were nearly final very early on.  In others, the baby versions sounded completely different.

“’Baby’ One” is a real treat on the Kindergarten.  It is a strictly acoustic affair full of raw emotion.  The band sounds so close together as if they are bonding over the song that would become the hit that would save their career.  There’s a real passion and love here.  While the final version of the song is absolutely perfect, I do find myself enjoying the “baby” version more often.

Kindergarten is a musical example of finding out how the sausage gets made.  But while the magic of the end result may be lost for some people, it only elevates it more for me.  Achtung Baby is a very important record for me and knowing how it came together doesn’t diminish the love I have for it.  It is a powerful record of lust, love, loss, regret, and suffering.  It starts with a blast of energy, but ends in melancholy.  The range this record has narratively, musically, spiritually, and physically is dynamic and breathtaking.  You’re going on a journey when listening to this album.  The boys from Dublin had no idea where this album would take them, and neither do you when you hear it for the first time.  After 25 years, the album is as important as ever.

 

“i love you all the time” – eagles of death metal (2015)

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On Friday, November 13th, the city of Paris, France experienced the worst night of carnage since World War II. Through a series of coordinated terrorist attacks committed by radicalized Islamists acting on behalf the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), 130 people lost their lives. These attacks included three separate bombings near the Stade de France, several shootings, and a mass shooting at the Bataclan, a famous concert hall. The Bataclan was the site of the largest number of lives lost during the November 13th attacks. It was there that the Eagles of Death Metal were performing.

U2 were scheduled to perform at a nearby venue on the night of the shootings and were preparing to shoot a concert film the next day, U2: iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live in Paris, to be aired live on HBO a few hours later. The concert and the taping were subsequently cancelled and would be rescheduled at a later date. Though I was eagerly awaiting the premiere of the concert, I understood the decision made by French authorities to cancel the concert.

In the days and weeks following the attacks, information was released about the attackers and bombing raids were carried out in Syria. The cowards who committed these atrocities were identified and dealt with accordingly. During that time, the world stood in solidarity with Paris. The French people bravely carried on and refused to be afraid. The world must move on and cannot be stopped as long as the resolve of its people remains strong.

U2’s concerts were rescheduled for December 6th and December 7th with the taping taking place during the latter performance and airing on HBO later that night. December 7th was my birthday. Being able to see that film on my birthday was welcomed, though a bittersweet gift. Bono, being a political and idealistic hurricane, stated that all previous preparations were cast aside in order to make the December 7th taping a symbolic gesture to express solidarity with Paris and the victims of the attack. Such a powerful gesture from an elder statesman of rock. Bono’s passion was coming through and, I knew, would result in a memorable performance.

I attended two performances in Chicago from the iNNOCENCE + experience tour during the summer. For the most part, the production design and musician blocking remained the same. A spirited performance of “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” provided the backdrop to a touching tribute to the victims of the attack including their names appearing on the large screen in the center of the arena. A solemn and appropriate tribute, but that was the just the beginning.

Towards the end of the concert, Bono introduced the Eagles of Death Metal to the stage. “They were robbed of their stage three weeks ago,” Bono said. “We would like to offer them ours tonight.” Then, every member of each band powered through a spirited performance of Patti Smith’s classic “People Have the Power.” However, that was not the end. U2 quietly left the stage and it was only the Eagles of Death Metal that remained. Jesse Hughes, the band’s lead singer, enthusiastically addressed the audience and was on the verge of tears.

Closing out the film, the Eagles of Death Metal performed “I Love You All the Time,” a track from their latest release Zipper Down. It was the first time they had performed since the shooting during their show at the Bataclan. The band was one I had heard of, but I was unaware of their music. The name floated around and would come up at various points, but they never fully landed on my radar until the Paris attacks. Even then, I didn’t seek out their music. I’m not sure why when I look back on it. So, their performance during this concert was my first proper introduction to the band. Watching them perform, I loved their spirit and tenacity. The energy was palpable, and I wasn’t even at the concert. The band was fully embracing the moment as if they were never going to let go. That was the most touching part of the night.

The attacks in Paris were more than just an attack on the French people. It was an attack on expression. It was an attack on brotherhood. It was an attack on the world. To stand strong and carry on in the darkest of moments exclaiming “I love you all the time” represents everything that is good in humanity. That when evil rears its ugly head, the light shining from our collective love destroys all shadows.

While the track is a bit dark and the classic story of unrequited love, it took on a different meaning on December 7th. To everyone who stands for people and not for chaos, I say to you “I love you all the time.”