All Gretchen Wanted Was U2

July 29, 2015

All Gretchen wanted was to get on stage with U2. Gretchen already has a stage of her own with the Boston garage band the Knock Ups, but being onstage with U2 would be something else entirely.

I first met Gretchen in May of 2005 as we stood outside the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston. U2 was in town on their Vertigo tour, and we both waited to meet the band. As is always the case when diehard U2 fans meet, we started exchanging U2 stories; it soon became clear that Gretchen loved U2 as much as I did. This was the start of a brilliant friendship with the woman I now refer to as my U2 soul sister.

Our U2 history is long. She was raised by a mom who was a U2 fan and was completely immersed in their music from the time she was twelve years old. I was born and raised in Boston and grew up listening to WBCN radio—the station that first broke U2 in the US. I vividly remember the moment I heard “I Will Follow” and was literally stopped in my tracks as I heard a sound that “made some sense out of the world.” When U2 came to the Paradise Theater in Boston on their Boy tour in 1981, I stood captivated in the audience watching a powerful, spiritual, punk rock performance that changed my life.

From the beginning of our friendship, Gretchen wanted to get onstage with U2. Born for the stage, she started singing and performing in local theater groups at a young age. Years later, she fronted the Boston punk rock band, Black Barbie. Gretchen had both the confidence and the talent to play with U2; it was just a matter of figuring out how to get her up there.

The Vertigo tour returned to Boston in October and December of 2005, but in October we weren’t scanned into the ellipse, so were too far away for Gretchen to be considered. In December, although we had rail spots for both shows, Bono chose an Elvis impersonator and Santa Claus to go up with him. In 2011, in Montreal on the 360 Tour, we were front row/rail, and Gretchen came close to being chosen, but it wasn’t meant to be.

As the dates for Boston’s iNNOCENCE and eXPERIENCE tour approached, Gretchen and I talked endlessly about our U2 plans for 2015—our GA meet and greet strategies, the pros and cons of main stage versus E stage, and the biggest challenge: getting her onstage to play with the band.

After many months of waiting, U2 week in Boston finally arrived. On the night before Boston 1, we headed down to U2’s hotel and saw Murphy, Bono’s bodyguard, standing outside on the sidewalk. It was quiet, and he was alone, so we introduced ourselves.

He was kind and gracious, and as we chatted, he mentioned that he recognized me from previous tours. He readily agreed to have his photo taken with us, and then, handed us his business card and asked us to email him a copy of the photos.

g and edge

We said goodnight to Murphy and headed to the Garden for the GA check-in. We were overjoyed to have the contact info for Bono’s bodyguard: the man who is responsible for keeping Bono safe and who also plucks fans out of U2’s audience and gets them onstage. It felt serendipitous.

We emailed Brian the photos along with a note thanking him for his time and his kindness. We also spoke of our long history with U2. We further went on to mention Gretchen’s band The Knock Ups and her mad guitar skills.

We put in our request: would he please ask Bono to consider bringing Gretchen up to play one night in Boston?

That night at Boston 1, the most magical of the four Boston gigs, we were on the south side rail at the crease where the E stage meets the catwalk. Murphy was doing his bodyguard thing—walking up and down the catwalk, keeping his eye on Bono and on the fans in the arena. He saw me and came over, clasped my hand, addressed me by name and told me to enjoy the show. Ultimately, U2 didn’t play ‘Desire’ that night, but we went home full of optimism knowing that there were three hometown shows left.

For Boston 2, after much discussion we decided to do the south side catwalk rail. On the E stage that night, U2 played “Desire,” but they didn’t bring anyone up. However, as they segued into “Angel of Harlem,” Bono looked around and wondered “is there a girl guitar player in the audience who wants to come up and play?” There was no answer. He looked around and asked again. Still, no reply.

Gretchen was devastated that she had blown an opportunity by not being at the E stage.  When Bono couldn’t find the girl he was looking for, he instead chose a thirteen year old boy to play with them and, in a magnanimous gesture, gave the boy the guitar.

During the days off, we hoped for another U2 meet and greet. Back at the Ritz bar, luck was on our side as we ran into Adam outside on the sidewalk. He was charming as we spoke of our history with U2 and impressed that I was one of the fans at their Paradise show way back when; he thanked me for sticking with the band for so long. He graciously accepted Gretchen’s gift of a Knock Ups CD and t-shirt and laughed when we suggested that he wear the t-shirt onstage one night, since he’d been wearing punk rock band t-shirts all throughout the tour.

For Boston 3, Gretchen and I headed to the designated meet and greet spot outside the Garden. Before long, the black Cadillac Escalades started pulling up. Out of one car stepped Murphy and Bono, who started working the line.  Bono reached us. Gretchen gave him a CD and t-shirt while telling Bono that she was the lead singer and guitarist in a local band called the Knock Ups. She went on to say that it was a dream of hers to play onstage with U2. Would he bring her up tonight? He asked her what her name was, and when she told him, he said, “Well, Gretchen you never know how these things are gonna go” before he moved onto the next fan.

Later that night, we found the perfect position on the E stage rail. The show began, and soon, Murphy approached Gretchen to let her know that she’s going up; he gave her instructions on how to climb over the rail and fall back into his arms when it was time. We couldn’t believe it! For three tours, we had waited for his moment, diligently trying to make it happen! We were ecstatic and had difficulty focusing on the show as we waited for Gretchen’s moment. Gretchen was excited, ready, and not a bit nervous.

U2 finished playing “Crystal Ballroom” and we heard Bono say, “Gretchen, Gretchen, where’s Gretchen?” He scanned the rail, saw her, and within seconds, she was onstage with guitar in hand. I stood there, dumbfounded, as my U2 soul sister is coached by Bono on the chords to “All I Want is You.”

Watch the video to see what happens next. I can’t do it justice except to say that she, with her nerves of steel, killed it, becoming a celebrity in her own right.

Finally, in a week full of many surreal moments, at the fourth Boston show, imagine our surprise and delight to see Adam wearing his Knock Ups t-shirt when U2 came back onstage for their encore!!! I think Gretchen was more excited about this than she was about playing guitar with the boys. After all, instead of her giving a gift to the band, they were giving something fantastic back to her.

How sad we were to see our U2 week come to an end, but what a magical mystery ride we lived. Boston had seen four of the best gigs of the iNNOCENCE & eXPERIENCE tour—high energy, emotionally-charged shows that left us joyous and wanting more; and, if that weren’t enough, a lifelong dream had come true for my U2 soul sister. U2 sings of dreaming out loud, and now, the dreams of another diehard have certainly come true. Viva U2. –Donna Lane

Boston born-and-raised, Donna Lane is a mad U2 fan since her first show at the Paradise in early 1981. Follow @donna_marie40 on Twitter.

“Gay Pride In The Name Of Love”: U2 & Their Fans Celebrate Marriage Equality

July 1, 2015

David Wichman grew up in the 1980s listening to U2. He also grew up gay during the early days of the AIDS pandemic and experienced the double humiliations of bigoted demonizations and heartbreaking tragedies.

In the last 30 years, the fights against AIDS and for gay rights have come a long, long way, and some of the key allies for progress have been artists, actors, and musicians, including Bono and his bandmates in U2.

On Sunday, June 28, the day of gay pride parades in Chicago and around the world, millions celebrated the recent United States’ Supreme Court decision effectively legalizing gay marriage at the national level. But David Wichman took his personal Pride rally to the General Admission (GA) line at the United Center.

justin-david collage

With his hand-decorated rainbow flag in tow, he wanted to get a place close to the stage. His flag simply said: “IN THE NAME OF LOVE – THANK YOU!” Wichman wanted Bono and the band to know their work as allies has not gone unnoticed.

Of course, dozens of fans bring their banners and signs to the GA floor on each night of the tour, but not every fan has their banner or sign lifted hjgh by the lead singer onstage. As Bono had done in May in Arizona after the news of Ireland’s successful marriage referendum, he turned this spirited Sunday night show into a celebration of marriage (his wife Ali in attendance) and a joyful tribute to the civil rights advocates who worked to make marriage equality a reality for the entire USA.

U2 had made their support for Ireland’s marriage reform known on the band’s official website U2.com, and these sentiments had been picked up by mainstream media. Now that support had come to the American audience on the North American leg of the Innocence + Experience tour in a city where one million people had particiapted in the Pride celebrations earlier that day.

Bono took Wichman’s rainbow flag and paraded it onstage during “Pride (in the name of love),” a track that has been soaring and shining this tour as a new civil rights anthem, not only for gay rights, but for the people of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston. To see Bono dance the catwalk and approach the mainstage unfurling the universal symbol of gay rights was  not just a bold statement for the new equality paradigm but also an affirmation for all the bands’ fans who are proundly part of the LGBTQI community.

bono-flag-3

David Wichman shared his jubilant and eloquent response to the evening on his personal Facebook page, writing: “What does it matter that I tossed my pride flag onto the stage last night? Fans all over the world throw things on the stage and Bono happily acknowledges many of these gestures with love. What does it matter for Bono to take the time to acknowledge Gay Pride and the SCOTUS marriage decision?”

Wichman continues, “It matters because to have one of the most famous and loving generous humans on the planet support you and your community, this saves lives. People from every corner of the planet were watching Bono dancing with, spinning, and then gently carrying this flag across the stage, holding it up and then hanging it on the stage.”

bono-flag-4

He shares from his history of struggling with shame, “Some of them are just like me. They grow up in a world that tells them that they don’t count. A world that says that their life is a shameful disease. A world that feels like the only alternative to the pain of being who they are is suicide or blotting out reality with alcohol & drugs. So when your heroes and idols tell you that you matter, there is real hope.”

The pain and then hope Wichman mentions are real: “I buried a generation of friends and watched helplessly as many of my brothers & sisters around the world continue to be publicly brutalized, hanged, killed, shamed, and imprisoned. This counts! This matters!

I am so proud of this moment right now. My U2 family is more than just a fan base we are a worldwide network of Awesome.”

Bono’s celebration of David Wichman and the many fans like him is not just a humanitarian gesture for universal rights. It’s an acknowledgement of the unique beauty and struggle of the LGBTQI community for its integrity and its sanctity.

Bono’s activist crusades to fight AIDS in Africa have involved overt gestures of honest conversation and sometimes conversion with evangelical Christians. Bono is a respected Christ-follower among the fans who share his theology, and his faith inspires his advocacy; perhaps his bold unapologetic support for gay rights intimates a shift in Chrisitianity more generally, where full inclusion for LGBTQI members is now policy in many major mainline denominations.

Certain songs in the band’s setlist have generally accompanied Bono’s remarks for full equaliy, songs like “Pride,” “Beautiful Day,” and “One,” with these songs attaching themselves to the ascending rainbow consciousness and the ubiqitous motto #LoveWins.

justin-bono-also

During “Pride” with Wichman’s flag in his hands, Bono announces, “Gay pride in the name of love.” During “Beautiful Day,” Bono tweaks a line: “A rainbow of colors right in front of you.” Before “One,” Bono boasts that Ireland beat America to full equality by putting “the gay into Gaelic” and continued to speak eloquence on how difficult commitment is, but “Love rules! Love wins!” After dedicating the finale to the Pride marchers, the fans carried the closing song as a group singalong, 20,000 voices strong.

And if there were any lingering doubts, after the band leaves the stage each night, “Same Love,” Macklemore’s anthem in support of marriage equality, is the first tune to blare from the loudspeakers as the house lights go up. -Andrew William Smith @teacheronradio

Photos in this story by Justin Kent @justin_kent and David Wichman

justin-david-more

YouTube link to film of “Pride” by Tim Newell: https://youtu.be/LbwPJIjoTtI

When The Psalms Came Down

May 16, 2015

Until Thursday, May 14, 2015 in western Canada, it’s been a decade since U2 did a predominately indoor tour, alternating as they have been between football stadiums and basketball arenas since the Joshua Tree days. While some folks speculated whether the vast shimmering audacity of the stadium-seasoned Claw could ever be rivaled, U2’s designer Willie Williams had been working behind the scenes. The Elevation tour’s “heart” has been cut in half by a cross-like stage that crosses the entire mainfloor of the venues that seem tiny compared to the grandeur of the 360-tour jaunt in 2009-2011.

Fans in the General Admission standing-only section have been split into the “North” and “South” sections that represent parts of Dublin. The setlist has been severed at the middle by an intermission that brackets innocence and experience, but there is nothing inanely “innocent” about the teenage fury of a set prefaced by vintage tracks by the Clash and the Ramones and snippeted with the likes of Johnny Rotten’s “God Save The Queen” sneaking into “Vertigo.”

Brought from the invasive iTunes download of 2014 to an even more in-your-face tour theatric, this is a radically reflective midlife crisis that goes beyond the hopeful chimes of Boy onto the barricades of a religious battleground. From youthful disillusion and despair, Bono and the boys answer like the romantic William Blake from whom they stole the album and tour titles. U2 respond to the unspeakable by speaking the only language they can conjure: a punk rock prophetic and apocalyptic ecstasy, the spiritual vision quest that must pass through nihilism and terrorism to seek redemption and release.

On Friday, the death of blues icon B.B. King brought “When Love Comes To Town” into the set. Leaving very little trace of No Line On The Horizon in the show leaves room for Rattle and Hum and the vibes that recently went busking with Jimmy Fallon into the New York subways. Creatively squeezing more than three decades of creative output into less than three hours means some flexible switching and slippage in the setlist from night-to-night; this will be especially welcome to the hardcore fans as the tour later lands for extended residencies in cities like Chicago and New York.

dublin74

U2 have always claimed to be more punk than hippy, more blues than gospel, and it’s from a devotional fascination with the Psalms that Bono derives so much lyrical power. Surely spirit moved in mysterious ways as the band plotted the dramatic arc of the first half setlist, finishing strong with an emotionally potent trio of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” > “Raised By Wolves” > “Until The End Of The World.”

A heartbreaking and slow acoustic “Sunday Bloody Sunday” stops for the audio-video assault that recalls the 1974 Dublin bombings that prompted the words for “Raised By Wolves.” This is one spoiler fans might be grateful to be able to emotionally prepare for—but the reality that requires the realism of this song is an aspect of violent human folly that we’re all still wrestling with.

pages

The biblical language of last suppers and epic betrayals sitting atop crunchy guitars and effects that makes “Until The End Of The World” a live U2 staple after all these years takes on an even deeper effect after what precedes it here. The times we live in today are no less apocalyptic than those that inspired the fiery poems of Blake or the flammable bombast of punk. The world is always ending for someone somewhere. It’s only the first half of this show closing, but suddenly it’s raining paper, like the chaotic debris after the Dublin bombs, yet it gets called confetti on Twitter. Pages ripped from Alice in Wonderland, Dante, and Eugene Peterson’s Psalms. Fans can take these shards of fantastic wisdom with them. From the fallout of terror and ultimate human error, God’s blessings are still falling from the sky.

U2 are much more comfortable than they were in the late 1970s, but that doesn’t stop them from making us all uncomfortable with our mere mortality and political complicity and complacent spirituality. Bono had to take us back to his adolescent bedroom on Cedarwood Road to show us the cauldron where his poetic pyromania first sparked. And then, he had the mad idea to transform that bedroom into a traveling punk-rock tent revival that he could take on the road to rouse middle-aged rock fans from their workaday slumber. From what the world witnessed in Vancouver (and thanks to the instant gratification of Twitter, fan forums, and YouTube, we really witnessed this, albeit remotely), this is a mad idea worth nurturing and a revival worth partaking in when it comes to your town. With psalms raining down, with love it is coming to town.

—words by Andrew William Smith @teacheronradio

Photos of pages, collected from the first Vancouver show, by Beth Nabi (@bethandbono on Twitter)

 

“You Can’t Return to Where You’ve Never Left”: Thoughts on Songs of Innocence

September 19, 2014

U2’s new Songs of Innocence showed up free to all iTunes customers, creating immediate buzz as well as frustration. Neither the band nor Apple probably anticipated the way the very medium of the release would dominate many blogs and social media for several days.  Lost in much of the sound and fury of tweets and stories is the sound and fury of U2′s 13th studio album.

Early on, rumors circulated of an album titled Songs of Ascent, but we ended up with Songs of Innocence. The group stepped down, ever so slightly, from comparisons with the biblical psalmist to echo instead the collection of poems by often misunderstood English poet, artist, and visionary William Blake. Finally, the band is tempering, while not completely eschewing, the grand gesture that has become part of the U2 mythos. Their music reaches for the unreachable, a bold strategy that opens them to risk and failure but that also opens up transcendent glimpses of the transformative power of “three chords and the truth.” But the enduring power of the band’s music—its hits along with its misses—is the unflagging hope embodied in the Seamus Heaney quote in the liner notes of the new album. They do “[b]elieve that a further shore…is reachable from here.”

songs3

In his announcement during the Apple event, Bono refers to the new album as the band’s most personal album to date, and in it, they lyrically and musically explore their roots, the socio-political landscape into which they were born and the cultural and musical influences that served as eye-opening visions for where they could go as a band. The songs touch on musical influence (most explicitly the Ramones and the Clash), the experiences of first love, the specter of death on an individual and communal level, first encounters with America (the land and the “idea”), as well as explorations of rage, terrorism, and other manifestations of darkness.

U2’s music has always been a rich, intricate, and at times, frayed tapestry intertwining their personal narrative, the Irish and the American narrative, with a grand and transcendent narrative that mimics biblical eschatology.  That is, while embedded in the current situation, it speaks to—and about—the presence of a future reality to come, making its influence known now (e.g., “How long? How long must we sing this song?…For tonight we can be as one, tonight”). This album is no exception. So in that sense, it is a return to form, but a return with a difference.

It may not be an incidental observation to note that the current bookends of the U2 catolog are Boy and Songs of Innocence. And yet, this is a return that is not romantic nostalgia nor mourning for innocence lost. Instead, they seem like reflective meditations on the reality of how we all are marked by our context but never absolutely determined by it.

Musically, the album pays homage in lyrical and musical gestures to rooted influences. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” and “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” are explicit nods to The Ramones and The Clash for the ways in which their music opened vistas for the forming teenage band. There are nods to the Beach Boys in “California (There is No End to Love)” in the opening harmonies and the evoking of “Barbara Ann” in the chanting Santa Barbara. There is possibly a tip of the hat to the Eagles’ ambivalent vision of the state when the song opens with the peal of bells. Mission bells, perhaps.

The Edge’s opening guitar licks on “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” seem to sample Keith Richards on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” There are also self-referential moves as well.  The opening of “Every Breaking Wave” reminds one of “With or Without You” and there are slight resonances of “One” in the beginning of “The Troubles.

This is not, however, a derivative album. It is instead a recognition that we never paint on a blank canvas. We are marked by our experiences of light and darkness, joy and sorrow, life and death. This album deftly offers mature reflections on these themes in ways that realize how pain and joy and light and dark are often difficult to neatly quarantine from one another. On their way to “…kicking the darkness til it bleeds daylight,” (“God Part II,” Rattle and Hum) they have discovered that “…there is a dark that we shouldn’t doubt” (“Song for Someone”) and “…the darkness just lets us see who we are” (“Iris”). This honest, raw spirituality is what makes U2 one of the most relevant bands of our time. They still name a journey with honesty, searching, and stubborn hope.

The album finds the band less experimental than the previous album, and yet, they don’t just act as a cover band for their younger selves. There are parts of the quintessential U2 formula here mixed with a mature awareness of the complexity of life.  In “California,” the recognition of enduring grief is met with U2’s version of a hymn.  As Bono climbs the vocal register driven on by Larry’s drumming and Adam’s bass, the listener is caught up in an ecstatic moment, grasping for hope in the presence of despair.

And yet, there are songs like “The Troubles” whose name might suggest the strident beats of War but instead surprise with the haunting vocals of Swedish indie-pop singer Lykke Li joining Bono on a haunting meditation on pain and the internal monsters we ignore to our own peril. As he closes the song and the album with these lyrics—“God knows it’s not easy, taking on someone else’s pain. God now you can see me.  I’m naked and I’m not afraid; my body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed”—we are reminded of what is so compelling about U2.  The vulnerability that “…gives [pain] a name” and surrenders itself in these gestures then opens us up to new ways of seeing and being where darkness might be a mirror and foolish pride gets you out the door to a rich journey you might not have taken otherwise.

Songs may or may not be one of U2′s greatest albums—but it is one of their great ones. The production is solid and brings out some interesting nuances in the latter part of the album.  Musically and lyrically they are still at the peak of their powers, and they carry on the legacy birthed by youthful passion and bouts of hubris and craft it into a mature appreciation of life and longing in all its complexity.  Hopefully, they are far from through with this work, and the next chapter, perhaps called Songs of Experience, is on the way. —Rick Quinn  @apophatic1

 

Unsettling Combinations: Zooropa Retrospective (part one)

August 8, 2013

The time that’s passed since the 1990s requires us to look at that period of U2 from a different angle. As the world of U2 fans celebrates the 20th anniversary of Zooropa this summer, we turned to our webzine intern and “intermedia” co-editor Jordan Frye to get his take on the record. With only a year longer on the planet than the album, Frye likes U2 but does not love U2 like we do and approached the band for this review in a way that may seem unfamiliar to some of us, a sort of outsider perspective. We hope you enjoy what he discovered. –Andrew Smith, Editor

U2’s Zooropa is a point of contention for many U2 fans. Even twenty years after the album’s release, the issue still stands: is Zooropa any good? If so, where does it fit in with the rest of U2’s discography?

In the context of following what is generally agreed upon as the band’s most successful and creative period, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby in particular, Zooropa is a strange departure from the band’s familiar style. It’s an odd career move, but not unheard of. Many bands reach the peak of their fame and follow up with an album consisting largely of experimental tracks. For the die-hard U2 fan, it’s strange for some, yet one of the best for others.

Even though I am not a die-hard U2 fan and even though we know that writing songs about societal issues is nothing new for U2, the unsettling social aspects of the record stick with you.

Zooropa_album

From an outside perspective, Zooropa is a truly interesting listening experience. It’s strange at times. There are little moments where the types of sounds used for a song don’t seem to go together. A tambourine might break in during a moment of grungy, groaning guitar, such as in “Numb.” At other times, the sound can be absolutely beautiful, soaring, and full of texture.

The album carries with it an underlying tone of darkness. Not necessarily in content, but the sound itself is dark, moody, and primal. The title track “Zooropa” begins with chanting, eerie yet beautiful, finally breaking into floating guitar and Bono’s voice, swimming in modulated distortion.

There’s a tension between U2’s tendency toward positive sounds, even during moments of intensity, and the draw toward the darker side. Unsettling combinations of sounds that don’t belong together: much of it seems intentional.

“Babyface” combines a more typical U2 sound with a tinkling sort of childish tune in the backdrop. The content seems to apply to a child, arguably Bono’s as his first two children would have been only a few years old at this point in the band’s career. This combination of sounds continues throughout much of the album.

There’s an obvious message in the album as a whole. It’s difficult to grasp as one whole idea, but it sounds like an indictment of modern life. “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car,” “Zooropa,” and “The Wanderer” all deal with images of the corrupt nature of modern society and the issues therein.

Some tracks really benefit from the experimental edge. “Some Days Are Better Than Others” combines simple lyricism with a good beat and twangy, guitar-driven chorus. Other’s hardly feature it at all, such as “The First Time,” bringing out the more familiar slow ballad side of U2. All the same, it’s a gorgeous song, full of religious symbolism and touching images of true love in all its forms.

Zooropa is, simply put, difficult to really pin down. It’s weird. It has its moments where the only question is ‘Why would they do that?’ Other moments leave hairs standing up on the back of your neck. Compared to the canonical classics of U2 discography, it might not quite measure up, but it’s definitely no mistake on the band’s part. It’s an interesting look at a different U2, and maybe, it helped them make it through their height-of-fame phase and into musical adulthood with little consequence.

If anything, an album that fades out with a guest appearance by Johnny Cash himself has something going for it. –Jordan Frye, Contributing Editor

Next Page »