After U2 clattered through a sped-up, revamped version of "Magnificent" at the kickoff of the final leg of their 360° Tour, Bono smiled and offered an apology to the Denver crowd: "It's in development, that one," he said of a song they've played more than 100 times over the past two years. With 7 million fans in attendance, the 360° Tour is the most successful of all time, beating the Rolling Stones' record with a $700 million gross. But with fewer than 20 dates to go, the band still considers it a work in progress. "We'd like to get it to the place that we want it to be," says the Edge. "The final one or two shows, I'm sure, is where we'll fully realize the 360° Tour. This show is still being born, even if it's two years in."
After the band flies to Vegas following the Denver show, Bono dashes over to an elliptical machine set up in his hotel room and gives it a little hug: "Hi, honey, I'm home," he says, cackling. He feels lucky to be able to work out—and to walk without a limp, for that matter. The current U.S. and Canadian dates were scheduled for last summer, until Bono needed surgery for a serious back injury. "There were some terrible things that could have happened," he says. He's fully recovered, but the tour has now gone on so long that multiple members of the crew have conceived and given birth to babies during its run.
With so much time to evolve, the set list is dramatically different from what U.S. audiences last saw, in 2009. Instead of the No Line on the Horizon track "Breathe," the show now starts with a blazing "Even Better Than the Real Thing." U2 are preparing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Achtung Baby in the fall, so they're in a Nineties mood—"I'm blown away by how productive and creative that time was," says the Edge. They've also added the rarely played "Zooropa" and even a welcome snippet of "Discotheque."
U2 are happiest about a change involving the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been placed under house arrest by that country's military regime for 15 years: Each night during "Walk On," the band would make a dramatic call for her release—and in November 2010, she won her freedom. Now, in a video freshly shot in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi herself addresses the crowd before "One" (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who previously had that slot, popped up during "Magnificent"). "If you demand it, change will come," she says. "It starts with just one person. One."
Even as it embarked on the biggest tour ever, the band was trying to record a new album, and Bono and the Edge were also trying to save their troubled Spider-Man Broadway musical. "Our drug of choice in this band is doing really difficult things," says Bono. Longtime manager Paul McGuinness puts it more simply: "The expression is to bite off more than you can chew," he says. Bono acknowledges that a new U2 album probably got snagged in the web. "But we don't tell Larry and Adam that," he says with a laugh. "It's not like songwriting has stopped. We're crushing tunes every day."
It wasn't until early this year that the group abandoned the idea of getting an album out before the end of the tour, after working on separate sets of songs with Lady Gaga producer RedOne and Danger Mouse. "We had to have a meeting and look at the schedule to see if we could pick up any extra time to work on it," says Adam Clayton, "and we just realized that we couldn't. To be honest, everyone was a bit gutted. But it was the only sensible decision."
When the tour ends, the three 150-foot-high stage sets that the band has been dragging around will survive: McGuinness has been negotiating to "recycle" them as permanent event spaces around the world. The band will return to the studio, with the expectation of releasing an album toward the end of next year, most likely from the Danger Mouse sessions. "We have to focus on what we do best, and the work we did with Danger Mouse came closest to that," says Clayton. "We want to be in the clubs and make pop music as well as the thing U2 does, but in the end, the thing we did with RedOne doesn't feel like the right fit."
U2 are looking forward to moving on. "It's making me giddy," says Bono, "the idea that this thing will be over in August. I will be sad to say goodbye to the space station, but I'm very excited about the free time to finish these songs." How about some rest? "I'm not tired at all," says Bono, taking a gulp of beer. "But I'm looking forward to, as Johnny Cash said, 'Walking barefoot in my yard.'"
RELATED: Video: The Edge on Writing New Songs