One Year Later: U2 in Concert

It wasn’t but five minutes after the injury when I first broached the topic: “This better not make me miss the U2 concert.”

I’d just cut up my hand in that lawnmower and made the proclamation as we backed out of the driveway en route to the hospital. My then-girlfriend, surprised at my concern over missing a concert when the possibility of losing multiple fingers was still very real, shot back: “Why would it?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve been waiting nearly two years for this concert. I don’t want to miss it.”

Luckily, it didn’t come to that.

The following Saturday, two friends and I entered Qwest Field, along with 65,000 other fans, for one of the most unforgettable nights of my life. One year later, it still resonates almost as sharply and deeply as it did mere moments after the evening’s final notes.

And, really, the evening couldn’t have been more perfect. June in the Pacific Northwest is about as predictable as Wesley Matthews on the fast break. But we lucked out; nary a cloud dotted the sky as U2 walked to the stage. Later in the set, Bono would sum up the day as only he could: “The city looked like it had come out of a washing machine and hung out on a clothesline,” he said. “It looked brand-spanking new.”

The stage itself was an unforgettable sight. Four “arms” protruded from the football field, meeting more than 150 feet in the air. Wrapped below the intersection of all four arms was a circular video screen that showed a variety of images throughout the night, from showcasing the stage performances to displaying the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a testament to U2’s stage presence that the monstrous claw didn’t overshadow the four musicians as the night wore on.

Over the span of about two hours, U2 performed at least one track from each of its albums — no small feat for a band that formed 35 years ago. Two songs in, U2 went way back for “I Will Follow” — the first track from its first album — before performing a few tracks from its latest release, “No Line on the Horizon.”  With tracks like “Get On Your Boots” and “Magnificent” firmly in the rear-view mirror, U2 trotted out anthemic hit after anthemic hit.

I may never experience a string of songs as cathartic and memorable as the final two-thirds of U2’s set that night.

It started with the tender, melancholy “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” The acoustic rendition — featuring only Bono’s vocals and The Edge’s acoustic strumming — didn’t feel out-of-place in the massive football stadium; in fact, the track gave Qwest Field an intimate feel that few bands could have truly harnessed. It was the world’s biggest club show for those five memorable minutes.

U2’s sound only got bigger from there. Commander Mark Kelly then appeared on the big screen, having recorded a message from aboard the International Space Station. That led into my favorite song of all time, “Beautiful Day.” It was a highlight in a night full of them. (I wrote about the dichotomy between these songs several months back.)

Words can’t do justice the feeling that erupted inside of me at that moment. Here I was, on a perfect summer day, seeing my favorite band perform my favorite song, with my best friend. One week removed from a devastating injury, my arm was still in a sling and awaiting surgery, but none of that mattered in the moment. It was the first time since I’d been stitched up the previous weekend that I honestly thought everything would work out for the best. It was a feeling I wish I could have bottled up and revisited over the next few months. Lyrics such as “After the flood, all the colors came out” never meant as much to me as they did that weekend.

A trio of classics followed. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” led into a heart-wrenching rendition of “Miss Sarajevo,” which led into the surreal “Zooropa.” It remains a testament to U2’s talent that a song as soaring as “Pride” could butt up against the somber “Miss Sarajevo” — and still work.

It was about that time that the giant screen you see in the photo above came apart. The bottom slowly fell to the stage’s surface, breaking down into dozens of hexagon-shaped video screens that stretched to more than 100 feet tall. And they stayed there through the next pair of tracks, both from U2’s 2004 rocker, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” That was the album where I really fell in love with U2, thanks in part to anthemic tracks like “City of Blinding Lights” and the rocking “Vertigo.” So to hear those favorites was a treat.

But not as much of a treat as U2’s remix of “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” — easily my favorite track from the new album. I’ve shouted along to this track dozens of times in my car, and lines like “The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear” and “Let’s shout until the darkness, squeezes out sparks of light” will always mean something special to me. So hearing that was special. It was about that time I thought “I may never hear another sequence of songs in concert in my life that will impact me like these.”

And it all climaxed with the next track: “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” It’s one of those rare songs that conveys a sense of urgency without overloading the musical landscape. The memorable drum-driven intro, driving guitars, sneakily energetic bass line, and Bono’s urgent vocals came together and rattled the stadium’s walls. Say what you will about U2, but it feels like something is always at stake in their music. Every song meanings something, even if it’s not always clear what that something is — and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” exemplifies that urgency to a “T.”

And that sums up why the concert remains such a fond memory a year later. It was intensely personal, yet at the same time, it was an experience shared with more than 60,000 fellow music fans. No concert before or since has stirred up such an emotional reaction. They’ve been doing this for 35 years, and it doesn’t feel like they’re finished or coasting. They’re still exploring, trying new things, trying to reinvent themselves, and changing the notion of what a band can be after more than three decades together.

U2 has always straddled that line, creating “big-sounding” music while crafting lyrics malleable enough to represent something different and meaningful to each of its fans. They put songs about sex next to song about religion next to songs about love, and it always sounds like U2. They’ve garnered a fan base that sticks with them, whether they’re unrepentant in their sincerity or winking through their latest piece of pop art. Few bands could cultivate such a fan base, never mind keep them aboard through a myriad tonal and attitude shifts. And all of it was on display that night in Seattle, coming together in one big, joyous musical gumbo.

It was night I’ll never forget — and worth every day of that nearly two-year wait.

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