by Big Al
At the heart of the anticipation and expectations of any concertgoer is the hope their favorite songs will be played and sung in familiar fashion.
When you summon the faithful to sing the hymnal, sing 'em like they know 'em.
So, forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I made an idol of seeing one of my favorite bands of all time perform their best album of a 40-year career. And like all idols, when I needed it (wanted it) most, it let me down.
I loved the U2 show at NRG Stadium in Houston on May 24, 2017. I really did. The spectacle of it, the sheer enormity, the historic significance of revisiting their 1987 The Joshua Tree album in its entirety – these reasons alone made it definitely worth being there, enduring the long lines of security and the stiff price tag.
But among the most important things the leader of a congregational singing knows (if you want the people to sing along) is to sing and play the songs the way the people know them and remember them.
To ensure unity and togetherness (two primary topics which Bono preaches at all political and social levels), to ensure we’re all on the same page and to attempt to lead us toward the one thing that unites us, be sure we can all sing together in that metaphysical, supernatural experience of our corporate gathering. Bono seems to be slipping into what I refer to as that Willie Nelson recollection – just kinda-of getting through the lyrics, trying to remember them even though he wrote them and has hammered them out thousands of times, focusing more on not having to sing them the-same-old-way-every-single-night-this-is-boring-me.
That, alone, will ruin a congregational singing. Imagine going to church and having the song leader merely go through the motions, or attempt to give their own creative spin on the familiar songs you know and love merely out of their own boredom. As you sing, he changes the rhythm of the flowing out of the lyric. He slightly modifies this line, or that. He shortens the length of the notes of crescendo which enunciate the best portion of the song. He lets the words fall out of his mouth in hopes that he gets them right.
And when a band chooses to perform – in sequence – an entire culture-changing album that their die-hard fans will know every line and riff of down to the deepest cuts on that album – that band needs to passionately crank it out faithful to the original. Because that original is what’s burned in their memories. And the very reason you are attempting a huge tour – to pay homage to that album and all that it means for the fans – nearly vaporizes if you stray from this course.
I also feel the pretentiousness of U2 – the self-awareness of their live performance – has reached its zenith. Ever since stardom overcame them (largely because of The Joshua Tree), they’ve cheekily and unabashedly seen and described themselves as rock stars, the biggest band in the world, and all the other self-deprecating idioms. But when that self-awareness interferes with the quality of the music itself (the very reason for the band’s existence), it dilutes the product to something lesser than expected. In Houston, I couldn’t hear the music because the band’s self-awareness got in the way.
As a quick aside, the choice of venue may have led to disturbances in the sound. The cavernous atmosphere of NRG Stadium made for challenges in the audio mix and confused the delay patterns of Larry Mullen Jr.’s rhythms coupled with The Edge’s already signature sound of various intentional delay patterns in the guitar. By the time these myriad frequencies reached my ears in the third tier of seats – even though several huge speaker arrays were positioned on giant equipment trees which even blocked my view of 10% of the stage – Adam Clayton’s bass was a muddy mess. Like all really great music, it is the subtlety of frequencies that reach the ears which enhance the listener’s experience – and this is best served in the most intimate setting possible. U2’s forever-position of worldwide phenomena make that impossible, so the inherent problems of stadium sound are simply something one must try and get around.
U2 in Houston was a bit like going to the funeral of an old friend you hadn’t seen or heard from in years. And while some of the things said and recollected about the guy are familiar to you, it’s clear he either strayed from being on the path and trajectory of the guy you knew, or else his life witnesses in describing their own viewpoints merely discolor him for you and don’t give you the most accurate picture as you remember it.
It ends up better to simply recall and re-live your friend and the memories you shared the way yourmemory serves - and letting the magic of those memories from that period of your former togetherness sing in unity. All the right words, sung in their original patterns and rhythms, without missing a beat.