An Irish spaceship has landed in a Chicago football stadium, and its pilot is standing under a starless sky, barking mad orders into a microphone. "Take the astronauts' voices out," says Bono, his brogue echoing through 61,000 empty seats. "And if you could take Sinéad out of the first verse ... the sonic boom needs to fade three times faster — it's not a subtle thing, it's a big change."
It's less than 24 hours before the kickoff of U2's first U.S. stadium tour since 1997 — and as far as Bono is concerned, a perfectly good time to tear apart a section of the show. He's fixated on an obscure song: "Your Blue Room," a languid, atmospheric track from the band's 1995 Passengers collaboration with Brian Eno. U2 have never even played it live, but tonight they're trying to transform the tune into an elaborate production number, with newly recorded vocals from Sinéad O'Connor and video and audio shot aboard the International Space Station.
"We're lucky," says U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, watching the expensive effort unfold from a chair in front of the midfield production tent, "that they're not doing it live from space."
The actual setting is exotic enough: a four-clawed metal sci-fi cathedral that's the biggest stage in rock & roll history — large enough to be seen from planes approaching the city. It's almost a living thing, with moving ramps, constant exhalations of smoke and a constellation's worth of rotating lighting rigs. Even the video screen performs tricks, stretching up and down like a Slinky — when Bono asks for it to retract, it does so instantly, rustling with the hum of a thousand bees.
Up until now, the dress rehearsal had been going well, as the band tore through the first half of a two-hour set, playing to vacant cheap seats. The show — already polished in 24 European dates — begins with four songs in a row from the band's latest album, No Line on the Horizon, before diving into the back catalog. But "Your Blue Room" is a mess, the song's essence buried in astronaut chatter and other sound effects. What should be a haunting moment — a Belgian astronaut named Frank De Winne appears on the vast cylindrical video screen above the stage, reciting a spoken-word verse as he floats in zero gravity — isn't registering. "That was not a pleasant experience," Bono says, before hijacking the rehearsal to play the song again and again. His bandmates and the production team already spent an hour on the song the night before, and they know they're in for the long haul when the singer asks for coffee from the stage. Even as they reshape the sound effects and video, Bono is writing a new bridge on the spot for the 14-year-old tune, improvising lyrics and melodies each time they run through it.
Bono's relentlessness has helped get U2 this far — while leading them off a PopMart-size cliff or two along the way. "Bono has to be Father Christmas for 70,000 people every night," says longtime show director Willie Williams, "so it's absolutely fair enough for him to lead the charge." The rest of U2 roll with their singer's tenacity with varying degrees of good humor. After they conclude a lengthy onstage huddle with Williams, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. cracks, "If it ain't broke, break it."
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