By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009
With more than 120 trucks transporting a stage that cost $40 million to build, U2's 360 Degrees Tour is being touted as the most expensive rock-and-roll expedition ever waged. Could the timing be any worse? Fans are still reeling from a global recession and America's live music industry seems more harried than ever.
But U2 works in mysterious ways. For years, the band has thrived at the uncomfortable intersection of social uplift and capitalist sensationalism, and this time out, Bono and the boys appear to be placing their bets on the latter.
The stage itself is a true retina-scorcher. Unofficially dubbed "The Claw," it's a 164-foot-tall, dry-ice-belching monstrosity comprising four columns that resemble robotic crab pincers. Covered in strobe lights and subwoofers, each column reaches toward a central cylindrical JumboTron that serves as the eye of the concert's storm. When the band performs beneath this hulking piece of technology, it appears as if planet Earth has decided to sacrifice its highest-grossing Irish rock troupe to our new alien overlords.
The menacing, sci-fi aesthetic also feels completely at odds with the warm fuzzies U2 so desperately try to arouse. And while the 360-degree setup allows fans to experience the band in the round, it still gives the proceedings an acute sense of foreboding.
Perhaps there is something ominous about this trip for U2. The rockers are touring in support of their lowest-selling album of all time -- this year's adequate "No Line on the Horizon" -- and with the music industry still bleeding dollars by the millions, one has to wonder how much longer bands will be able to stage concerts this indulgent.
Meanwhile, the tour's summer romp across Europe hasn't gone without hiccups. Critics have accused Bono of trivializing a spectrum of political struggles from his $40 million pulpit, while venue neighbors in U2's native Dublin decided to protest after noise violations kept them awake at night. (Don't expect Bono to turn down the volume when Live Nation brings the 360 Degrees Tour to FedEx Field on Sept. 29 -- he's often long-winded at area appearances, perhaps in hopes that his sermons will carry all the way to the White House.)
Mixed feelings about St. Bono aside, U2 still deserves credit for its refusal to become a nostalgia act. The tour features oodles of tunes from "No Line on the Horizon," some of them delivered compellingly.
Some fans might feel better singing new songs "Magnificent" and "Get on Your Boots" knowing that the band has donated heaps of the tour's proceeds to various charities and purchased the requisite carbon offsets, but I'm still conflicted. Sure, U2 may be trying to feed the hungry, but the band is also undeniably feeding the idea that spectacle is activism's only means of making an impact in our global mediascape.
When 360 Degrees descends upon FedEx Field, fans will be faced with a multi-sensory extravaganza that's utterly hideous, undeniably impressive and tough to reconcile. For better or for worse, it might be the last time we see anything like it.