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U2, Live From Outer Space: Launching the Biggest Tour of All Time

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At stake is the biggest rock show of all time — and U2 seem entirely comfortable working at this scale. The monster stage is their workplace, as unremarkable to them as an office cubicle. But there's no denying it: Thirty-three years after four Dublin teenagers first came together in Mullen's parents' kitchen, they have reached their summit. "We're actually at the limit, the absolute limit, when you consider the economics and the practicality of transportation," says the Edge. "We're really as big as we could ever get."

The size of the tour, in some ways, is the point — an argument for the value of rock megastardom itself. In a culture as divided musically as it is politically, U2 are offering themselves up as one thing to agree upon.

"Your Blue Room" is meant to "tie the show together," as Tom Krueger, who directs the show's video content, puts it. The celestial imagery offers a reminder of the optimism about the future that the space program once represented — and the shots of Earth from space match the global perspective of a show that addresses AIDS in Africa and politics in Myanmar and Iran. (And the stage does look an awful lot like a spaceship — David Bowie's "Space Oddity" even plays each night as the lights dim.) "Your Blue Room" is far from a hit, though, and hardly anyone's idea of stadium rock — in each subsequent version, the band keeps trying to make it quieter, more seductive. "It's a delicate thing," Bono says. "The problem is, the song could sink a whole section of the set if it doesn't work." He's ready to gamble and do it opening night, but the rest of the band is pushing for night two in Chicago. (The song ends up premiering on the second night — Bono, who watched the crowd closely, says he saw faces that were "rapt and a little mystified.")

The goal, as usual, is elevation. U2 are trying to make art in football stadiums — to achieve what Bono calls "intimacy on a grand scale" — even if getting there takes $750,000 a day of overhead: a 170-ton stage, 200 trucks and the corresponding carbon offsets, nearly 400 tour employees, more than 250 speakers, 13 video cameras, Sinéad O'Connor and various astronauts. (Red guitar, three chords and the truth sold separately.)

The tour is also the latest skirmish in U2's battle to prove that the biggest band in the world can also be the best — and that, despite relatively weak sales for No Line on the Horizon, their new material can stand up next to the old stuff. "What do you do if you're in a band?" the Edge says. "Do you just keep your head down and sell loads of tickets and CDs around the world? Or do you try and engage and try and do something different?"

The band takes one last shot at "Your Blue Room," and it's all starting to click: churchy washes of organ, the Edge's melancholy piano chords, spotlights on top of the stage converging in a pyramid in the sky, the closing image of the sun rising over Earth, which leads directly into "Unknown Caller," with its opening lines "Sunshine, sunshine." Bono is relieved, and the rehearsal moves on. "One giant step," he says, "for a little man."

On their way to Chicago, U2 almost run into Lil Wayne. Five minutes before the band drives up to a private airport in Newark, New Jersey — it's using New York as a home base for this leg — a shades-wearing Wayne and a small entourage walk along the tarmac to their own private plane, unaware that they're missing a chance at a superstar summit.

The jet that U2 are using today is a loaner, while their usual one is being prepped — and it's so opulent that even Wayne might find it gauche, with couches instead of chairs, dark, polished wood walls and a private anteroom or two. I'm sitting alone in one of those cabins, waiting for takeoff, when a figure appears in the doorway. "Tickets, please," Bono says. He's wearing a denim-on-denim outfit and gray shades slightly larger than his usual model. His hair is shorn brutally short on the sides — it looks like he has it trimmed every day, and he probably does.

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Song Stories

“Nightshift”

The Commodores | 1984

The year after soul legends Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson died, songwriter Dennis Lambert asked members of the Commodores to give him a tape of ideas. "And the one from Walter Orange has this wonderful bass line," said co-writer Franne Golde. "Plus the lyric, 'Marvin, he was a friend of mine' ... Within 10 minutes, we had decided it should be something like a modern R&B version of 'Rock 'n' Roll Heaven,' and I just said, 'Nightshift.'" This tribute to the recently deceased musicians was the band's only hit without Lionel Richie, who had left for a solo career.

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