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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Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Classroom Instruments with Jimmy Fallon and One Direction

I’ve been swamped with holiday prep,battling a nasty cold and work related deadlines, so the blog posts are going to be pretty light until next week. I’m sure that you are all in the same boat. But to tide you over until tomorrow’s pop culture roundup, here’s the latest installment of one of my favorite segments on The Tonight Show – Classroom Instruments. I’m always impressed with what The Roots are able to do with the limited options and it gives the musical guest a nice opportunity to showcase their true vocal talents. It’s nice to see such a bare bones, but catchy musical performance and everyone always looks so damn happy to be doing it. I struggle with getting into the holiday spirit, but you can’t watch this an not have a big old smile on your face.

Philadelphia Pop Culture

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This weekend, after the 4th of July holiday, I’ll be headed to Philadelphia for a few days to attend a concert. I’m very excited – not only to see Jay Z and Beyoncé, but also to get the chance to explore a city that I haven’t had the fortune to spend much time in to date. Though Philly is less than 4 hours from Albany, I’ve only been to the City of Brotherly Love twice – once to see a Phillies game last year and once when I was a kid visiting family in nearby Trenton. I’ve seen Philadelphia from the highway on several road trips to Baltimore or Washington D.C., but sadly have never had time to stop. My two previous visits were fine, but fairly narrow in focus – we went to a museum with my family and I only went to the baseball stadium on my last trip. I haven’t even seem the basics, like the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall which is sacrilege for someone who spent a fair amount of time in graduate school studying and teaching the founding period of our country. This time around, I’ve cleared out some time specifically to see more of the city; since it is the 4th of July weekend and the place will probably be crawling with visitors, I’m opting to mostly skip the major tourist attractions and am focusing more on restaurants and breweries this time around. If I’m only going to be in town for a little over 24 hours, I don’t want to spend most of that waiting in line. But I do plan to check out some of the neighborhoods and better orient myself for future visits. I really need to take advantage of the fact that the city is relatively close by.

Though I may not know much about Philadelphia from personal experience, I certainly know about the city’s many contributions to pop culture. As one of the country’s oldest cities, Philly has long held a place of prominence in the world of arts and entertainment. So it’s not surprising that there are a lot of connections to the city in recent pop culture. A city that gave us the cheesesteak certainly has a lot to offer.

I’m not a local, so I’m sure that I’m missing some major Philadelphia related pop culture – for that I apologize in advance. One thing I do know is that you don’t want the good people of Philadelphia mad at you 🙂 But as a pop culture connoisseur, when I hear Philadelphia, the following things immediately pop to mind:

The Roots

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Arguably the greatest house band of all time, I was familiar with The Roots before they teamed up with Jimmy Fallon but there is no doubt that their stints on Late Night and The Tonight Show have opened them up to a wider audience. They are ridiculously talented musically – that was never in doubt – but the real surprise was just how darn funny they can be. My love for Jimmy Fallon is well established, but even I recognize that without The Roots by his side, his show wouldn’t be nearly as good; they provide him a deep bench of talented people that he can draw on for a musical number or a sketch. They are so versatile and can seemingly do anything. The Roots proudly represent their Philly roots (ha!) and often make reference to their hometown. They are great ambassadors, since they are now the first thing I think of when I think of Philadelphia. In fact, I’ll miss the free concert that The Roots organize every 4th of July in Philly, but I’ll get to see them Labor Day weekend in Boston at a music festival.

Rocky

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I don’t know how it is possible to think of Philadelphia and not think of the Rocky films, since the city was basically a character in so many of the films. While I do plan to skip a lot of the more touristy things that the city has to offer, I think I will make an exception to run (or walk – depends on how humid it is) up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and check out the Rocky statue. I may even punch a slab of meat if given the opportunity. Rocky III was probably my first exposure to Philadelphia, so it only seems right that I pay my respects.

 

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

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I mean – Philadelphia is right there in the title! This FX comedy may be about a group of terrible people who are friends, but they do right by the city in which the show is set. There have been several Philly specific storylines over the years, mostly having to do with the local sports teams. The opening credits of the show also highlights the city; it was shot on the cheap using a handheld video camera as they drove around the city and they haven’t’ replaced it since the show has become successful and has a real budget. Rob McElhenney and Kaitlin Olsen even co-own a bar in Philly, though sadly it looks a lot nicer than Paddy’s Pub.

 

Will Smith

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“In West Philadelphia, born and raised” is more than just lyrics to the theme song for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; actor and former rapper Will Smith is from Philadelphia and often pays tribute to his hometown by wearing Philly sports attire or dropping a reference or two in his songs. Of course, the theme song is probably his most notable Philadelphia pop culture reference as he turned life into art by making his fictional character on the show hail from Philly. The great store Pop Culture Lab even has this print for sale, commemorating the epic journey of young Will.

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Hall & Oates

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I have no idea why I know that Hall & Oates hails from Philadelphia, but I do and know you do too. Recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (introduced by fellow Philadelphian Questlove), Hall & Oates dominated the airwaves in the 70s and 80s with some of the catchiest tunes of the era. That’s right – I like Hall & Oates, which only furthers my obsession with questionable music. I dare you to listen to “Rich Girl” and not sing along and God help you if you hear “Private Eyes” and don’t clap along. And they seriously had some of the most glorious facial hair in rock and roll. During their induction speech, they lamented the lack of Philadelphia representation in the Hall, an omission that seems ludicrous to me with all the musical talent out of the city.

 

The Philly Phanatic

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The Phanatic may be the mascot for the Philadelphia Phillies, but he is an institution upon himself. I’m not a huge fan of mascots – blame that on the Yankees not using mascots for most of their existence – but I’ll be damned if the Phanatic hasn’t won me over. He’s probably my favorite sports mascot behind Bernie the Brewer. I have no idea what it is about the Phanatic that appeals to me; he is definitely among the more spirited of the mascots out there and he just looks ridiculous, which perhaps I find charming. Whatever it is, I can’t think of Philadelphia without thinking of this green guy.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg; there’s plenty more Philadelphia inspired or connected pop culture. There’s the Oscar winning film Philadelphia, which was just too depressing to include on the list, as well as Silver Linings Playbook, which uses Philadelphia for its backdrop. I can’t wait to see what else I uncover during my weekend getaway. What’s your favorite Philly pop culture? Sound off in the comments below.