By Matt Dolloff (@mattdolloff)
The mid-1980s brought a time of transition for U2. On the strength of their platinum-selling LP The Unforgettable Fire, they had grown too big for the mid-size venues they viewed so fondly, and had to start performing in arenas. A good problem to have for any ambitious rock band.
Their arrival in New England in the spring of 1985 conjured all the problems one might expect for a band in transition adjusting to a rapidly growing fanbase: Increasing technical issues. Loss of intimacy with the fans. A massive bubble of energy that only arenas could contain.
But not that anyone in the band complained. Their three-night stay at the Worcester Centrum (now the DCU Center), peaking on April 18, 1985, showed a band more than willing to take a bigger stage and very able to handle the massive crowds and mounting pressure of arena tours.
“I think we’re a lot more relaxed onstage because the arenas contain the sort of energy that is generated better than some of the four- or five-thousand-seaters,” said bassist Adam Clayton on making the transition. “The Orpheum shows were legendary – but we couldn’t go back into the Orpheum now because that energy just can’t be contained anymore in that size building.”
Carter Alan was at the Centrum all three nights in ’85, and detailed his experience in his book U2: The Road to Pop. The second of the three Worcester shows remains his top highlight of the Unforgettable Fire tour.
Grace Under Pressure
The lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, Bono (C), and the rest of the group perform a song from their new album as they launch their worldwide “PopMart” tour at at K-Mart Store in New York City 12 February. The “PopMart” tour, which will be staged on a giant, science fiction, disco supermarket set, will open in Las Vegas 25 April and will play in 62 cities in 20 countries. (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
A major part of U2’s widespread appeal as a live act is their infectious on-stage energy. Much like his contemporary Bruce Springsteen, Bono’s mere presence on the stage is magnetic, and his raw emotion and sincerity bleeds through every night. And nothing ever changed that.
Even when the pressure mounted and potential crises ensued, Bono kept his cool. Carter recalled a past U2 concert where the stage lights wouldn’t work, but rather than delay the show the band performed with the house lights on, like they were at a Bruins game. The band loved it because they could actually see all the fans for a change. Carter enjoyed it too.
“It was cool to see the band work through a problem, and it didn’t affect the show at all – in fact, they kind of got into it.”
This wouldn’t be the last time U2 played with the house lights on. At future shows they would sometimes casually walk out to the stage, with all the lights still on, and just start playing. They enjoyed subverting that universal concert moment when the lights go down to signal the start of the show.
Bono famously kept the first ’85 Worcester concert under control when one of their lighting rigs began to slip out of its hold on the ceiling, lowering slowly toward the audience. The live spotlight operators sat “diagonal” on their rigs, according to the book.
There wasn’t any real danger of the rig actually falling, but the fans didn’t know that. The real concern was that “some sort of stampede” would ensue. But Bono prevented that by calmly instructing the audience to move out from underneath the rig while technicians raised it back to its proper position. Then he assured the crowd they were safe and they filled back in.
It was only a minor delay, and an otherwise strong showing of poise under pressure that perfectly illustrated Bono’s effect on a live crowd.
Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2 and The Edge (left) opened their world tour, April 3, 1987, before a sold out crowd at the Activity Center on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe. U2, a band from Ireland, kicked off a 14 city tour of the US promoting their new album “The Joshua Tree”. (AP Photo/Tom Story)
The hype surrounding the announcement of U2’s New England dates was palpable. In a time before you could order tickets over the internet, fans camped out in front of ticket offices in lines wrapping around blocks. Even so, all 38,000 seats for the three Worcester shows sold out in just five hours, according to Carter’s book.
– Carter Alan on the time U2 performed with the house lights on
On the surface, a three-night residency in a single venue sounds like a great prospect for a band. What aspiring rock star wouldn’t want to deal with that kind of demand?
The problem this creates, though, is that in playing the same place for three straight nights – often to half of the same people every show – the band can “lose their spark”. Carter attempted to explain the phenomenon.
“You can get too comfortable…The idea is when you’re in a new setting you’re on your toes; it’s a different sound, the audience is different,” he said. “The thing about U2 shows is that at least half the audience is the same audience as the night before. It’s an incredibly high rate of repeat fanatics.
“I try to go to every show, because every show is different.”
The band drove that point home at the second Worcester show, opening with “Gloria” – a song at the time typically reserved for the encore.
Just The Way He Is
Bono, also known as Paul David Hewson, is shown during an interview in Los Angeles, Ca., May 26, 1981. Bono, 21, is the vocalist and senior member of the Irish rock group U2. (AP Photo/Wally Fong)
Many rock bands cover songs by other groups at live shows. But they often do it just to do it, with no significant meaning behind the cover. Not the case with U2.
Every time U2 covers another artist’s song, there’s a good reason. They’re not always complicated reasons; Bono has chosen to cover the Beatles’ “Rain” at outdoor shows, simply because it was raining. They notably covered Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” at every single stop on the Unforgettable Fire tour, because the song’s simple three-chord structure allowed fans to hop on stage and join the band in playing it.
Carter says Bono’s song choices often happen because of the here-and-now.
“Bono does that, that’s just the way he is,” he said. “He’ll throw a song in because it says something to the moment.”
One of those moments happened that in Worcester in ’85. Right in the middle of deep cut “A Day Without Me”, Bono sang a verse from the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and threw the band off. Their rhythm barely stayed intact, though, and even though the audience didn’t seem to notice he couldn’t help but point it out: “Well, sometimes you just forget, you know?”
U2’s versatility and resiliency have played a major role in establishing them as one of the premier live bands in the world, even before The Joshua Tree. When a band is as locked in and energetic as they are on stage, it’s hard not to get caught up in the wave.