!nsp!re – U2 iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour

With the roar of last nights crowd still ringing in my ears, I thought I’d share some observations about U2’s current tour. This was my first time seeing the band, though I do own most of their tours on DVD, as well as several of the books that have been published about their shows and production. I hold their show designer, Willie Williams, in very high esteem; as a pioneering creative artist in the concert touring industry.

This tour returns U2 to arenas after the overwhelming scale of the U2360º Tour, which toured the world’s stadiums for about 2 years. The smaller environs of an arena suit the band, allowing them to connect with fans in a more accessible way. But just because the scale is smaller, it doesn’t mean the show is less high-tech. U2 have always been at the forefront of concert and entertainment technology; and i+e is no exception.

The first thing I noticed upon walking into the Los Angeles Forum was just how clean everything appeared. Most rock tours are a cluster of cables and gack. I could see clearly into the backstage area where it appeared someone had taken great care to make sure everything the audience could see was meticulous.

The area behind the stage, about an hour before the show.
The area behind the stage, about an hour before the show.

The tour is wrapped around songs of innocence and songs of experience. The set up reflects that idea, and consists of the “i” stage and the “e”stage. The two stages are connected by a catwalk. Suspended above the catwalk, bisecting the arena, is an enormous double-sided low-resolution LED display surface which raises and lowers throughout the show. Set into the floor of the stage is a ribbon of light that glows, reinforcing the “i-e” shape.

Until the End of the World
Until the End of the World

Sandwiched between the LED wall is a catwalk bridge. Contained within the LED wall is additional lighting, strobes, and cameras. When lit from within, the LED wall becomes semi-transparent (similar to a theatrical scrim) allowing the band to be seen playing inside the bridge as images cascade over them. This was especially effective in “Cedarwood Road” (with Bono walking through the streets of Dublin) and “Until The End of the World” (with Bono superimposed over The Edge – perfectly fitting, given the Judas/Jesus nature of the song).

Cedarwood Road
Cedarwood Road

During one sequence, the LED wall rises and four mirror balls lower from beneath it to form a different look for “Mysterious Ways”. Show designer Willie Williams always finds a way to use mirror balls and seeing them show up in such an unexpected way was delightful.

There were also a number of lights used as architectural interest, lying horizontal on the stage and catwalk floor. These units rose during “City of Blinding Lights” to form brilliant pillars of light. They were joined by similar fixtures which flew in from above. These units combined creatively with the video content on the LED wall, rendering an incredibly beautiful scene.

City of Blinding Lights
City of Blinding Lights

Surrounding the upstage side of the “i” stage were lighting fixtures and strobes, all placed very low to backlight the band. These were especially effective in “Vertigo”. Perhaps what struck me most about the show was how “minimal” it was. I know – how can a show with this much tech be considered minimal?

I suppose it’s in the approach. The lines of the stages are super clean. There is no color on the set, only black.The use of color in the lighting is minimal, with very little saturation (a touch of blue here, a light addition of amber there). The only songs with any real “color” were “Mysterious Ways” and “Where The Streets Have No Name”. Even the cues were minimal. I remember seeing Willie Williams at a conference a few years ago and he mentioned then that he didn’t really do lots of cues. He said something along the lines of, ” I just set a look I like and then live in that for a while”.

The massive screen/catwalk
The massive screen/catwalk

One would think that approach would result in cueing and stage “looks” that are boring. But it doesn’t. It works in a magnificent way; allowing the band to inhabit the space and the audience to not be distracted by the constant changing of lights. The creative blend of music, lighting, and video is elevated by using a light hand. Practicing such restraint and putting in only what needs to be there is one of the hallmarks of a true artist.

If you have the chance, it’s definitely a show worth seeing. If not, here’s a great video of the entire show from May 26th, 2015.

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