Digital staging mockup for the upcoming U2 360º world tour.
By Clive Young.
In the wake of 9/11, many bands canceled tours dates in New York City, but U2 honored a string of concerts at Madison Square Garden that had been scheduled for only weeks later; the result was a series of now-legendary shows that became cathartic release for the city’s emotionally exhausted denizens. Eight years later, the state of the economy finds much of the nation in a similar despondent place, just as the band has released its 12th album, No Line on the Horizon, and announced perhaps its most ambitious tour, titled U2 360°.
Originally titled Kiss The Future, the tour may aim to set precedents, but will likely be seen as a test case as to whether stadium tours are still a feasible concept in an increasingly frugal age. Currently set to play six weeks of shows in Europe and another six in the U.S. this year, the tour’s audio will once again be provided by the band’s longtime concert sound provider, Clair (Lititz, PA).
The production will find the band playing in the round, in a fashion emulating the indoor arena layouts of its two previous U.S. tours, with a main stage at one end of the venue’s floor, supplemented by a circular ramp looping out into the crowd, allowing band members to walk out while creating an intimate concert experience for the audience inside the loop. As drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. told U.K. tabloid, The Mirror, “The stage is like a spaceship, and this allows us to be placed close to the center of the stadium. It has not been done before. Essentially it’s trying to bring the band closer to the audience, and that’s the challenge.”
The catch with playing a stadium in such a fashion, as opposed to an arena, is this: Where do you put the loudspeakers? Answering that question, show director Willie Williams and architect Mark Fisher designed a four-legged structure, inspired by the base of the Eiffel Tower, to hold 200 tons of PA, lights and video equipment above the band and audience. Digital staging mockups released on U2’s website show a structure roughly half a football field in size, with two hangs of 18 line-array speakers on each side, for a total of 144 boxes placed above the band and audience. Clair declined to comment on the production’s technical requirements for the upcoming journey, but the group’s last effort, the 2005-06 Vertigo tour, carried a selection of Clair i4, i4B, P4 and FF2 loudspeakers, along with DiGiCo and Digidesign digital desks.
Commenting on the mockups, Greg Hall, business manager for Clair, noted, “The idea was chartered to the crew at the end of the last tour–start digging into ways to make it work. So this is not a new idea; this is something the band has been wanting to do for a long time. I think people are going to walk into the stadiums, and their jaws are going to drop. The graphic on the website tells the tale, but you cannot get an idea of the scale until you see it in person.”
Launching a production of such magnitude in the current economic climate surely provided food for thought for the band and Live Nation Global Touring, its worldwide promoter for the tour. Tickets are being touted as reactionary to the economy, with 85 percent of each venue’s tickets going for under $95, with 10,000 seats at each stop priced at $30. That said, playing in the round will increase the capacity of most venues by 15 to 20 percent, making each stop on the group’s itinerary a likely windfall.
Of course, that will be aided if the Horizon album proves to have legs–an uncertain prospect for even U2 in these times of illegal downloading and taut purse strings. In the midst of a struggling economy, what does it take to launch a major album by one of the last big rock bands? Having sold 158 million albums worldwide, the act could arguably sit back and coast, but clearly, prior successes weren’t being banked on for Horizon’s release, which meant Clair was as busy as the band during its early 2009 promotional stint.
The company provided gear and crew for a slew of appearances across Europe, including rigging the BBC Building in London with speakers on the sidewalk, fifth-floor balcony and roof for a five-song set performed atop the broadcast facility. Soon after, in the U.S., the band played a week’s residency across the street from Pro Sound News’ office at Late Night with David Letterman; the Mayor of NYC, financial guru Michael Bloomberg, temporarily renamed 53rd Street “U2 Way;” and Clair Global provided audio for both a high-profile, free concert at Fordham University in the Bronx, televised on Good Morning America, and a “secret” theater concert in Boston.
While all that attention helped the album jump out of the gate with a half-million in U.S. sales its first week, it also set the stage for the band’s production that will grace the world’s stadiums over the next two years.
Hall, for one, thinks it’s crucial in this day and age: “I truly believe right now, people need food, health care, facilities for when they grow old and retire, movies, and they need to sit in the dark with live music and blinking lights for four or five hours to get away from everything else. Whether it’s pretending you’re 20 years younger or singing all your favorite songs at the top of your lungs in the dark, I think it’s absolutely essential right now, and we’re very fortunate to be part of such an industry that gets to provide that.”
Sounds like a little of that catharsis from 2001 may be heading to a stadium near you.