U2 – Madison Square Garden (New York, NY), 7.22.15

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In August of 1992, U2 played a concert at Saratoga Raceway, which was one town over from my hometown. The Raceway didn’t host a ton of concerts and the fact that U2 was playing there was kind of a big deal. It seemed like pretty much everyone I knew went to that concert – except me. I don’t remember why I didn’t go; my hunch is that my family was on vacation, though I also just didn’t go to very many concerts when I was a teenager. What I do remember is the strong feeling of missing out; it seemed when school started in September that everyone had been at this show. I was constantly taunted by people wearing their concert T-shirts during gym class. I coveted those stupid ZooTV shirts and felt like I’d missed out on something truly memorable, a shared experience that I wasn’t a part of. I’ve been salty about this ever since; we all know that FOMO (fear of missing out) runs strong in me and I resolved that I’d eventually remedy this gross injustice by seeing U2 in concert. It’s why seeing U2 landed a spot on my pop culture bucket list.

The irony here is that I’m not even that big of a U2 fan.

I mean, I like U2 just fine and everything, but they’ve never been in contention for my favorite band. My U2 fandom probably peaked in the early 90s and even then it took a back seat to my love of grunge music. If a U2 song comes on the radio, there’s probably a 50/50 chance that I’ll change the station; partly because some of their songs are just really overplayed and partially because their songs aren’t fun for me to sing along with because I don’t really know the words. There are U2 songs that I really like – “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is my favorite – but even though the album that they were touring to support was automatically added to my iTunes library, I’ve never listened to it. So I was very passionate about seeing a band in concert that I wasn’t even that passionate about.

Given those limitations, I was still pretty excited about the show; I love an excuse to go to NYC and even if I didn’t know all the songs that they played I was fairly confident that U2 would at least put on an interesting show. They were playing 8 sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, so obviously seeing them perform is still a pretty big deal to people and they have a pretty enthusiastic fandom. A good crowd can get you pumped up regardless and their enthusiasm was contagious as we waited for U2 to take the stage.

The stage set-up was in and of itself interesting; there was what would traditionally be the main stage at the other end of the arena, but then there was a long catwalk that lead to a secondary smaller stage that was right in front of my section. I had managed to score seats on the lower level, so I was fairly close to this secondary stage. If I had been at a Rangers game, these seats would have been amazing.

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I also may or may not have been sitting behind Thor:

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There only downside of our section was that we were sitting perpendicular to the giant video screens that hung over the stage. This was slightly disappointing, but there was a smaller video screen facing us that we hoped would give us a taste of what the people on the sides of the arena were experiencing. But assuming they spent any time at all on this smaller stage, I had a prime location.

Since there was no opening act, the show began fairly promptly around 8:30. There was a slow build in anticipation throughout Madison Square Garden as the seats began to fill in and people anticipated U2 taking the stage. Bono entrance was fairly anticlimactic – he actually walked in front of us to get on the small stage and then slowly walked the length of the catwalk to join the rest of the band on the far end of the arena. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting, but it seemed that someone like Bono would have made a more dramatic arrival. If the crowd was quietly buzzing before, they were practically giddy with anticipation one he appeared; U2 fans seemed a little more rabid than the fans at your run of the mill show. Most people around me had seen the band multiple times; in fact, a lot of them had seen U2 multiple times on this tour. Their energy was slightly intoxicating and I felt a little bit like an imposter.

They kicked things off with “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” which is off their new album so I’d never heard it before. Not the most auspicious way to kick off my U2 experience, but that one is on me, not them. Even though the song was new to me, I still enjoyed it and watching U2 in action. Though they may not be the biggest rock band on the planet – if they even ever were – they still can rock out and put on a very entertaining show. Love or hate Bono, he’s entertaining to watch. That dude rarely stands still, which made my photographic documentation of the concert a little tricky. Just when you think he’s settled down, he suddenly has another burst of energy. I know that he’s still adapting to not being able to play guitar after his injury, but I think that this has actually freed him up a bit and allows him more leeway in his movements and theatrics.

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Visually, the U2 show is pretty cool. Those giant video screens were put to good use as Bono actually climbed up to the narrow catwalk between the two screens so that he was actually interacting with the images. As drawings of their hometown in Ireland whizzed by, it almost gave the appearance of Bono walking down the street. It was like nothing that I’ve ever seen before – and given my location I didn’t really see it all that well this time either. The images on the screen in front of us were much smaller and they kept cutting the feed to show the rest of the band; while I’m always excited to see The Edge, it kind of took away from what they were trying to do visually. But what I did see was very different from anything that I’d seen at any other concert.

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Later in the show, the entire band got on the catwalk and would appear within the graphics:

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The other downside of the giant video screens were that the apparently had been lowered from where they were when the show started – probably to allow Bono easier access to climb up – because my view of the main stage was obstructed. This wasn’t the case when the show started, but now I had two giant video screens in my way. I honestly wasn’t that bummed about it – if anything it gave me a chance to sit down when they were on the far end of the stage – but a lot of the people in my section were pretty annoyed. In all honestly, I felt like they spent a ton of time down on the small stage that was right in front of us, so we really didn’t have anything to complain about. I’d be far angrier if I thought I had front row tickets and then half the show was either on the other end of the arena or taking place inside video screens. I had not anticipated being close to U2 at all, so really the fact that they were close as often as they were was gravy to me.

The band made full use of the catwalk and their wireless instruments to move about the entire stage. Even drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. got to be mobile; in one of my favorite moments he played a snare drum during “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and the collective U2 spanned the stage.

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The band was set up down in front of me on the small stage when Bono pulled a woman up from the audience to dance with him. I had anticipated this – they had done this at earlier shows – and she got to have her moment to shine during “Mysterious Ways.”

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After that song ended, he asked her to stay on stage and act as the videographer, handing her a cell phone that was synched up with the video screens. Bono then said that he wanted to pull someone else up from the audience to help him sing the next song. This seemed somewhat unusual and he picked a guy out of the crowd that had a giant sign (I couldn’t see it, but I would later find out it said “singer with a broken finger “). There was something familiar about the person’s movements as they climbed the stairs to the stage and I noticed that the person wasn’t dropping the sign from in front of his face, which was a clear indication that this was not your average audience member. Once I saw his left hand all bandaged up, I knew – that was Jimmy Fallon!! Once he got on stage he dropped the sign and proved that I was right. If a regular U2 concert was good, a U2 concert with a Jimmy Fallon appearance is even better.

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True to his word, Bono handed the microphone over to Jimmy and let him take the lead vocals on “Desire.” It was fabulous –Jimmy was running all over the stage and even busted out his Bono impression once the real Bono put his sun glasses on him. Jimmy even busted out a harmonica and played a little. It was spectacular and they all looked like they were having a ball. I was SO happy that this was all going down right in front of me; I had a great view of all this awesomeness that was unfolding.

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After the song, Jimmy said that he had some friends that wanted to join in and sure enough – out comes The Roots! This really was the perfect show for me to have picked to attend; who would have expected all of this on a Wednesday night, the third show of U2’s MSG residency? It’s like they went out of their way to make sure that I had a good time. Questlove and company played “Angel of Harlem” with U2 and that was glorious as well. Ha-ha – suck it people in “the front row.” Section 102 is where it was at! Just a truly amazing surprise that I am so grateful I got to see firsthand.

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The rest of the show was great as well, though of course the surprise guests were really the pinnacle for me. I didn’t even care that U2 didn’t play my favorite songs; they put on a solid show that was both visually and musically pleasing. For a band that’s been around for nearly 40 years, they are most certainly not resting on their laurels; they are still trying to innovate and give the audience something different. It’s like they still had something to prove, which I guess maybe they do. Bono sounded great and the band was tight; the 2+ hours that they played really seemed to fly, even with the brief intermission.

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It may have taken me twenty plus years to finally see U2 live in concert, but I’m glad that I finally did it. I don’t know that I’ll necessarily ever see them live again, but it was a highly entertaining show that I would have enjoyed even if The Tonight Show didn’t break out in the middle of it. U2 may not be the biggest band in the world anymore, but they are still relevant to the musical landscape and aren’t looking to relinquish their crown without at least going down swinging. It’s a testament to the show that they put on that I enjoyed it as much as I did, coming right on the heels of my awesome time at the Foo Fighters show. Bono even kept his speechifying to a minimum; if anything, he was less “Bono” than I expected. Perhaps he’s chilled out in his old age.

Fun time, great show and I didn’t even mind going into the work the next day on less than five hours sleep. Mission finally accomplished – I’m no longer the only kid on the block who has never seen U2.

Setlist:

The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)

Out of Control

Vertigo

I Will Follow

Iris (Hold Me Close)

Cedarwood Road

Song for Someone

Sunday Bloody Sunday (acoustic)

Raised by Wolves

Until the End of the World

Invisible

Even Better Than the Real Thing

Mysterious Ways

Desire (with Jimmy Fallon)

Angel of Harlem (with The Roots)

Every Breaking Wave (acoustic)

With or Without You

City of Blinding Lights

Bullet the Blue Sky

Pride (In the Name of Love)

Encore:

Beautiful Day

Where the Streets Have No Name

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