The van pulls into the venue's loading dock, beside giant white tents set up for production offices and catering — it looks like a good-size festival is in town. Shaking hands as he goes, Edge walks through a concrete corridor, steps over thick, bound electrical cords and climbs the clanking steel stairs that lead to the top of U2's stage, which looks almost comically garish in the daylight. He greets Dallas Schoo, his genial guitar tech, straps on the first of a series of guitars and begins a one-man soundcheck.
Schoo hands Edge a Rickenbacker, and he plays the intro of "Mysterious Ways" — which, upon close observation, consists merely of one seventh-fret barre chord, a couple of rhythmic scratches and two notes — but it's enough to induce goose bumps when you hear that exact squelchy, sexy sound from Achtung Baby come directly out of Edge's four modest amplifiers. As Edge begins adjusting his guitar's settings and punching the 36 buttons on the pedal board at his feet, Schoo whips out a digital camera and photographs the positions of the knobs and switches on the guitar.
To give him freedom to roam the vast expanse of the stage, Edge is using a Garth Brooks-style headset mike for his backing vocals and also allowing Schoo to control his guitar effects — the tech has a duplicate of Edge's board under the stage.
But Edge keeps wandering back to his own board at stage right, tweaking settings. It's not unusual, Schoo says with some awe, for Edge to create new combinations of effects midsong in front of a full stadium, and then hit "save" to create a preset. "I'm so particular about guitar sounds, because it is the identity of the song in many cases," Edge says. He half-grins, half-winces at this uncharacteristic moment of immodesty, and revises himself: "a large part of the identity of the song."
Whether it's Zagreb, London or Chicago, every show begins roughly the same way: a segment of "Kingdom of Your Love" — an unreleased U2 song with a pulsing beat and choral vocals — blares over the PA, and Mullen struts out onstage alone. A single spotlight shines on the drummer while he plays an extended whirl of tom-toms, snare and cymbal that serves as an intro to the No Line track "Breathe," a sort of power waltz with Dylanesque verses and a chorus that's as U2-anthemic as it gets. Mullen's bandmates join him one by one — Bono pops up last, yanking his mike stand back as if it's a crank that makes the band go.
"It's amazing to walk out when the audience is expecting Bono," says Mullen, over a dinner of rice and vegetables at a picnic table outside the catering tent before one of the Zagreb shows. "I've been waiting 35 years for the drum solo. Wouldn't want to be holding my breath, but this is the closest thing."
It's not the guy that fans expect to see first onstage — and not the song they might be waiting for, either. After "Breathe," there are three songs in a row from No Line (the title track, "Get On Your Boots" and "Magnificent") — and three more tunes from the album show up, including the epic ballad "Moment of Surrender" as a show-closer. The emphasis on the new stuff is all the more brave when you consider that No Line on the Horizon has barely moved a million copies in the U.S. — placing it among the lowest-selling U2 albums — and that the album has thus far failed to produce a hit single. "I walk out and sing 'Breathe' every night to a lot of people who don't know it," says Bono. "I'm a performer — I'm not going to hang on to a song that doesn't communicate and add up to something. They're great songs live, and I think it's a great album. I think it will be seen as 'Gosh, one of their more challenging albums.'"
On the way to Chicago, though, Clayton worries that Americans might be more impatient than Europeans: "I'm a little concerned about whether or not we can open with four new songs," he says. "That might be tricky." And after the second show in Chicago, Bono notes that the show "still needs a little more toasting." So by the second week of the U.S. leg, U2 try taking "Breathe" out of the set list, kicking off with "Magnificent" instead and reducing the number of new songs at the beginning of the show to three. ("What strikes me about them is they'll hold on to an idea," says video director Krueger, "until they find a better one.")
The one new song every crowd knows is No Line's first single, "Get On Your Boots" — which the band plays in a more straightforward, harder-rocking arrangement live, stripping it of its electronic elements. U2 love playing the song, but three out of four members now acknowledge that it was the wrong choice for a first single (Edge continues to defend it). "Interestingly, it's going off live," says Clayton. "But I think probably what happened was it's a common U2 problem. I think we probably worked on it and worked on it and worked on it, and instead of executing one idea well, I think we had probably five ideas in the song, and it just confused people. They weren't sure what they were hearing."
Bono has his own ideas. "Look, sometimes our audience isn't as groovy as we'd like," he says with a smile. " 'Get On Your Boots,' as it was released, is a sort of crossover, half-club, half-indie-rock record. People are not sure about the club side of U2. They want 'Vertigo.' And when we did this the last time — with 'Discothèque,' from Pop, they didn't like it either."
But in what must be considered an act of defiance, the band is including one of its clubbiest moments ever in the current show — playing its recent single, the midtempo pop tune "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," in a nearly unrecognizable LCD Soundsystem-style remix, complete with whimsical video of the band members bopping their heads to the beat. Bono had decided the show needed the song during rehearsals in Barcelona, after walking to the top of the stadium and deciding that there had to be a musical moment as futuristic as the stage. Even Mullen, traditionally resistant to such moves, enjoys the remix — not least because it gives him a chance to roam the stage with a hand drum while an electronic beat takes over. And Clayton particularly loves it, because it's based around a sample of a piece of his bass part that his bandmates had almost vetoed as too "twiddly."
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