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

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As he straps himself into one of the plush seats, Bono is fascinated to learn of Lil Wayne's proximity, and laughs when he's reminded of a nine-year-old U2 lyric: "The last of the rock stars/When hip-hop drove the big cars."

"We should buzz the plane by him," Bono muses, "And yell, 'We were only kidding.'"

The truth is, Bono — who is friends with Jay-Z and enlisted Will.i.am to do production work on No Line — relates to the bigger-is-better ethos of mainstream hip-hop a lot better than he does rock's increasing tendency toward self-ghettoization. "I love the idea of what you might call a more porous culture, where there's much more crosstown traffic," Bono says. "Jay-Z is a pioneer. He'll work with an indie band. He likes to be in places no one else has been.

"In this age of celebrity and pop stardom, maybe it's a sensible thing to question the values of being a pop star," Bono continues. "Radiohead, Pearl Jam, a lot of people, who maybe had much more sense than us, rejected it. But the thing that's suffered from that stance was that precious, pure thing, what they used to call the 45. That new Pearl Jam song ["The Fixer"] — it's brilliant. It's got that attitude, like, 'We want it.'"

The U2360° Tour makes a case for the idea of a vital mainstream, for the power of a stadium full of people taking off their earbuds to sing together. "How long can it last? I don't know," Bono says, pondering his band's increasingly singular superstar status. "Most people are content in their ghetto, and their ghettos are big. I still hold on to this old-fashioned idea of the meta-event — meta goes across, it becomes more than it is."

The show is an unlikely fusion of the two extremes of U2's tours — the technological overload of 1992-93's Zoo TV and the no-frills, bare-stage Elevation Tour. "This is our masterpiece," says Williams, who's been planning this tour since 2006, and comes along on every date to tweak the show as it goes. "It's sort of the culmination of everything I've done with U2." On the band's plane one afternoon, he opens his MacBook and shows off iteration after iteration of architect Mark Fisher's potential designs for the stage (which was known as the Claw until the spaceship idea settled in). One file has a "wheel of style," with adjectives next to corresponding pictures of possible shapes: "domed, kinetic, spiky, pointy, archy, skeletal, wrapped."

But the real point is that from the band's perspective — which I get to see one day when I climb onstage during a soundcheck — the design elements of the stage all but disappear. What the musicians perceive instead is its openness, the in-the-round trick that gives the tour its "360" name — you can spin around and see every seat in the house. The sound system, lifted out of the crowd's way thanks to the four-­pillared design, is the largest ever built for a tour — and four separate sets of speakers allow for the live equivalent of surround sound: Sound engineer Joe O'Herlihy gives Mullen's drums and Adam Clayton's bass an entire speaker column of their own, for instance.

Not incidentally, the design also means that, unlike any other stadium tour, every seat in the house can be filled — which is one reason why McGuinness says the tour is on track to be the highest-grossing of all time.

"Somebody asked us last night, 'Do you need this stuff?'" says Clayton. "And the truth is, you don't really need this stuff. But part of show business is you have to change people's perceptions, you have to find ways to make the songs touch people more, to disorientate people so they're more open to being touched."

On the Elevation Tour, one month after September 11th, 2001, U2 played three of the most emotional shows of their career at Madison Square Garden, with the audience all around them. It's that experience the band is trying to replicate, on a larger scale. "What happened was that the audience were looking at each other," Bono says. "Saying, 'We've come through this.' That's the magic trick. The rabbit out of the hat is to make the audience the star of the show."

A month before Chicago, U2 are 17 dates deep into their European tour, and the Edge has exactly 10 minutes to play tourist in its most exotic port of call. He climbs into the back of a van outside his hotel for a drive through Croatia's capital, Zagreb, to Maksimir Stadium, home of the nation's greatest soccer team, and of tonight's U2 concert. "This will be my Zagreb experience," says the Edge, a smile crinkling the corners of his goatee. "It's the one thing that's strange about touring — you don't get to see things." As usual, he's dressed in black — T-shirt with a geometric pattern on it, jeans, leather Converse, head-covering cap. On a silver chain around his neck hangs a razor blade with the words "Don't Mess" carved into it.

It's U2's first-ever show in Zagreb, and the first time they've played in the once war-ravaged region since a dramatic Sarajevo show in 1997. Edge settles into his black leather seat and begins snapping pictures out the window. The sights of the now-flourishing city rush by: a statue of medieval king Tomislav on a horse; posters for recent concerts by Patti Smith and Dale Watson; clotheslines between buildings (they remind Edge of his Dublin childhood: "I remember clothespegs. Who buys clothespegs anymore?"); streetcars; and, to his amusement, a vast metal structure poking past the top of a dowdy sports stadium. "The view I got, it looks like just another building," Edge says.

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