September 19, 2009

U2 Create A "Spectacle"

Three years ago, when I decided to accept a job offer to come work at MTV, which then was just launching in Canada, one of the things that factored into my decision making was that working at the network would afford me my best opportunity to meet U2. I've been a massive fan of the band since the mid-1980's when I found a copy of War on cassette in the sleeper cabin of my friends cottage and listened to the tape non-stop for the entire drive home.

Since then I've seen the band play live many times; checking them out at Maple Leaf Gardens, Exhibition Stadium, Olympic Stadium, Air Canada Centre, SkyDome and Copps Coliseum. The 1992 Zoo TV tour absolutely blew my mind. The mix of outstanding live music performed by a band that is literally designed to play anthemic stadium rock and the over-the-top production design of that tour (which I saw three dates of) was the pinnacle for me as a fan of the band.

Full disclosure: While I'm still an enormous fan of the band, I'm also a realist, and I certainly didn't think there was much chance in 2009, nearly twenty years removed from that iconic tour, that U2 could still deliver a live performance that I would mention in the same breath as that tour. Obviously, they were still the hottest ticket for me, but now, when I go see a concert it's about nostalgia as much as it's about how great they're gonna be. The days of their live performances absolutely flooring me had faded as the band (and I) had greyed. When the 360 Tour was announced, I dutifully secured my tickets and hoped that not only would I see them live, once again, but also that they would grant MTV an interview so, at long last, I could meet the four Irish lads that have provided the ever-evolving soundtrack to my life. In fact, when their latest CD No Line On The Horizon failed to chart a single, I thought to myself, "perhaps they will feel the need to do a little publicity." The request went in for an interview but I was told right out of the gate that it was a tremendous long shot. Then, a few weeks back, came news that gave me hope that perhaps this long shot would come in.
Elvis Costello, a musician I have a ton of respect for, last year began hosting a show called Spectacle. For those unfamiliar with the show, Costello brings on a musical guest for what amounts to an hour of interviews interspersed with a jam session between the guests and Costello and his excellent band The Impostors. Season two was gearing up, and the first episode was going to be shot at MTV headquarters, the Masonic Temple. The first guests would be Bono and The Edge.

The interview, suddenly, seemed less important. Now, the focus would be how to get myself a seat for this incredibly intimate, unique nearly-U2 performance. Despite the taping happening literally steps from my desk, the scarcity of seats and ravenous demand for those tickets made the task difficult. When I learned that tickets had been requested for the on-air personalities at MTV and denied, I grew concerned. The day of the taping arrived and my beloved supervising producer, who was attempting to procure me a seat, just looked at me with shrugged when I asked about the ticket. To make matters worse, as I sat at my desk preparing an edit, I listened as Elvis Costello sound-checked upstairs playing U2 covers. The concert hall, however, was closed to the MTV staff. A few hours later, Bono and the Edge arrived, and soon, I was listening to them soundcheck as well. Knowing my favorite band on the planet was upstairs casually running through a few of their classic songs but I couldn't watch was killing me. It didn't help that people kept coming by my desk and saying things like "I was just in the kitchen and Bono was in there." What am I supposed to say to that, exactly?
In desperation, I added my name to the "seat warmer" list. In the unlikely situation that one of the ticket holders didn't show up, I could warm that person's seat, that, sadly, was where I was at. Even more sad was that I was happy to at least have that, though it certainly didn't sound like a sure bet. As my work day wrapped up, I headed outside to sulk my way over to the "seat warmer" line and any hope that I had of getting in quickly dissipated. I was faced with a lane of traffic on Yonge Street closed down to house a quickly growing mob of people waiting to get into the building. Shortly after the doors opened, however, I learned that the "seat holder line" was really the "fan line." For the taping, the producers of the show wanted to have some big U2 fans in the building so they didn't risk having having a house full of people sitting on their hands. I was led into the concert hall and was shocked to be seated in the 2nd row, right in the middle. A few of my co-workers seated to my right were paranoid that we would be turfed from these prime seats before the show started so they literally avoided eye-contact with anyone they didn't know but it soon became clear we had just hit the musical jackpot.

What unfolded over the next few hours was a musical experience like nothing I've ever seen before. Costello opened the show with a cover of U2's "Please" followed by a rousing rendition of "Dirty Day" from Zooropa. As a nod to the Edge, Costello littered both songs, particularly the latter one with a lot of pedal work and distortion guitar. It was nothing short of fantastic. A cover of "Mysterious Ways" morphed into an introduction of the evenings special guests and soon the capacity crowd were on their feet to welcome Bono and The Edge
who settled into their stools just ten feet in front of me. What makes Spectacle such an interesting show is that because Costello himself is such an accomplished musician, his interviews are always very inside, and he asks questions - and gets answers - that a regular music journalist wouldn't. The usual stage of feeling out the interviewer to see what their agenda is is not a part of his interviews, and instead it feels more like you just slid into a booth at a little pub only to discover that at the next booth over Elvis Costello, Bono and the Edge are sitting there chatting about music and bullshitting each other. I sat in rapt attention with a stupid grin on my face. After a lengthy chat, Costello shared his admiration for the song "Stay (Faraway So Close!)" (also from Zooropa) and he asked the boys to play it. One of the truly magical things about U2 performing live is that they are able to create such a connection with their audience; they create the illusion of intimacy in a 55,000 seat stadium. And here they were, literally feet from me, playing this song. My fanhood of the band came full circle. The illusion of intimacy became actual intimacy. As they finished the song, I realized I was wrong. In 2009, they were able to deliver a performance that left me slack-jawed and awe-struck.

Though no official release date has been revealed, it's rumored the show will air in December on CTV in Canada and The Sundance Channel in the United States. I should be easy to spot: I'm the big idiot with a stupid smile plastered on my face for the entire show.

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