LP Review: U2’s ‘Songs Of Experience,’ Battling Ambition and Expectations

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Expectations can tough for anybody. I was a league bowler as a kid and I can still remember the pressure I felt when the team needed a strike to win the tournament. It felt like the whole bowling alley was watching me… The expectations and pressure were such that I rolled a gutter ball. I can’t imagine what the pressure on a band like U2 or Bruce Springsteen must be like. U2 is a group whose music is so transcendent, whose music has lifted the world up and whose music is so important to so many people it’s gotta be hard to live up to that. They are, as my friend The Accountant and I say, the soundtrack to our lives. With every new U2 album the expectations for a masterpiece rise to a dangerous level. It’s like the entire bowling alley is watching them… I know, in particular, Arkansas Joel and the Rock Chick always have such high expectations that U2 can’t possibly fulfill them. Their love for U2 is so intense that they are naturally set up for a disappointment with every new release that isn’t The Joshua Tree. 

Ambition is also a tricky thing. I love that line from one of U2’s songs, “Ambition bites the nails of success.” Make no mistake, U2 is a very ambitious band. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard different members of the band say, “we don’t want to be a crap band,” whatever that means. Their entire career can be looked at as the conflict between their ambition for popularity and their artful tendencies. Every album is almost a reaction to the last album’s reception. After the criticism that accompanied Rattle And Hum (which was overblown, that was a great album and “Heartland” remains one of my favorite songs), they retreated to Berlin and took an artistic left turn for Achtung Baby. They were still the serious rock band they’d always been, but they painted over it with a veneer of irony. Unfortunately the irony got carried away on Pop, which was one of their few weak albums. So, they reacted – they recorded the very serious All That You Can’t Leave Behind – an album that is always associated with 911, but was actually recorded before that. It was their reaction to the death of their friend Michael Hutchence of INXS and they’d purposely stripped away the irony because of the reaction to Pop. “Beautiful Day” is one of their best tunes and they almost left it off the album because it sounded “too much like a U2 song.” Thank God for Larry Mullen, Jr who intervened and insisted it be put on the album. Every band needs a Larry Mullen, Jr.

Part of the problem with U2’s ambition is that in order to gain the popularity they seek, they try too hard to be current vs doing what they do well, which is rock. How else can anybody explain the presence of Kendrick Lamar on two tracks here. His rap at the end of “Get Out of Your Own Way” and the beginning of “American Soul” are not only unnecessary but distracting. I’m not adverse to hip hop, I’m not that old, but it just didn’t make sense here. The list of producers on this album is longer than the stationary of most law firms. One can’t help but think U2 are trying too hard. I’ve heard the sound of this album compared to Imagine Dragons (and unfavorably at that). I can also hear a little Cage The Elephant here, but that’s probably just me. That’s the problem with multiple producers – they influence the sound of the band instead of the reverse of that. I’d like U2 to lock themselves in a room with Steve Lillywhite who produced their early stuff and just rock. If I was producing U2, I’d unplug most of the Edge’s effects pedals and turn his guitar up. When he flat out plays guitar he lifts the music beyond the ordinary much as he did on U2’s last masterpiece, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.

Bono’s lyrics on Songs Of Experience are nothing short of remarkable. The album has that same All That You Can’t Leave Behind sense of despair, hidden under big, sing-along choruses. Bono had a brush with death and it’s informed his lyrics. I even found the liner notes he wrote to be moving. Like Leave Behind, I think Songs of Experience happens to capture the current zeitgeist of most the world. Things are turning dark out there and these ruminations fit that mood. Bono has said these lyrics/songs were written as letters to those he cared about, or perhaps more accurately described, love letters.

With all of that said, I will say this is a good U2 album. It is not a masterpiece, but it’s good, probably very good. I think time will be very kind to this album. It’s flawed, as I said. The attempts at currency are a misstep, but when he occasionally plays his guitar, the Edge drives the music to fantastic places. “You’re The Best Thing About Me” remains my favorite song here. But I also really like “American Soul,” Bono’s love letter to America. “The Blackout” is a rocky, slinky affair that conjures thoughts of Achtung Baby. These guys are so good when they just rock out. I even like “The Showman (Little More Better)” a groovy little acoustic driven number. Its a joyful moment.

There are two great songs that address the refugee issue in Europe, “Red Flag Day” and “Summer of Love.” They are in the middle of the album and provide it with a real emotional center. There is a lot of love on this album… Of the ballads, I really like “The Little Things That Give You Away.” I think every musician whose ever made it from Motley Crue and GnR to U2, had a woman who let them sleep at her place… Bono chronicles his experience in a great song to his wife, “Landlady,” where he sings, “you always paid the rent…” I also found “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In It’s Way” to be particularly moving but I’ve always liked U2’s serious ballads.

So what are my complaints here? The album is on the mellow end. The Rock Chick, like most people, likes her U2 loud and rocking. And when they do – “Best Thing About Me,” and “American Soul” she was all in. But for the most part these songs are rumination on love and death and they are on the downbeat side. Other than “The Blackout” I’m not sure I could play much of this album at a party, which isn’t necessarily the measure of a good album, but I think most people get what I mean. The production is a little too glossy for me. And, as I’ve mentioned, I would have liked to have heard the Edge’s guitar featured more prominently on this record. U2 shouldn’t be aiming to get played in clubs, they should be looking to get blasted out of the t-top of a Camaro. U2 need to ignore what is current, and stop grasping to compete with Taylor Swift on the charts. If they’d return to their core skills as a rock band, they’d find what they seek. I remember when Mick Jagger’s first solo album came out. Keith Richards savaged it, rightly so. Keith said Mick was throwing away his critical reputation by shaking his ass and wanting to compete against Madonna or Prince. Sage words, Keith, sage words.

U2 has all it needs to conquer the world again. And while this album probably won’t do that for them, it will fill stadiums and get people singing along. If I was U2, I’d just listen to anything Larry Mullen, Jr suggested as a musical direction. Follow the drummer, people. What I’d tell U2 is, “Free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see yourself.” If only…

 

Review: U2’s Two New Songs from ‘Songs Of Experience’

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As happens this time of year, my corporate overlords have kept me out on the road all week. Traveling has taught me one thing: Civility and good manners are dead, folks. Anyway, I wearily returned home to find the great news that U2 have made a number of announcements in regard to their upcoming album, Songs of Experience, the “sequel” to 2014’s Songs of Innocence. It’s all so very William Blake of them… “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night.” We have a release date of December 1 for the full album, just in time for Christmas. And, in other great news, U2 have announced a short spring tour through the United States beginning in May and running through June. Sadly it looks like I’ll have to fly somewhere to see them. Hopefully the early dates are just a framework from which they can hang additional dates in additional cities on to.

The build up for Songs of Experience has been impressive. I think this album is going to be an important one for U2… After two rather lackluster records, No Line On The Horizon (2009) and Songs of Innocence (2014) one gets the sense that U2 is bearing down to re-take over the world. These guys are like Muhammad Ali, they always seem to be fighting to regain the World Title. One could view their recent tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their landmark album, The Joshua Tree, as a concerted effort to reconnect with their fans and reignite the passion they so often inspire. (That tour was reviewed in B&V, Concert Review: U2 with Beck, Kansas City, Sept 12, 2017: A “Night of Epic Rock And Roll” – Bono, #U2TheJoshuaTree2017).

They released the first single a month or so ago. That song, “You’re The Best Thing About Me” is simply put, sensational and the best first single they’ve put out since “Vertigo.” I reviewed that single (U2: “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” The Strong New Single From ‘Songs Of Experience’) and it gives me a lot of hope for this new album. Never count U2 out, especially if they feel they have their backs against the wall. The announcements they made this week were accompanied by the album art, the track list and the release of two new songs. Looking at the track list, I don’t see much on the “Deluxe” version to recommend it, the bonus material appears to be all remixes. I say new songs, but one, “Get Out of Your Own Way,” they apparently debuted on The Joshua Tree Tour and the other, “Blackout” was out on YouTube and other social media platforms.

“Get Out of Your Own Way” is a mid tempo, ballad type track. It’s got big choruses. I usually love U2’s ballads, but this one is going to have to grow on me. The track fades in a little bit like “Where The Streets Have No Name.” I think my biggest obstacle on this song are the drums. They sound tinny or metallic. I think Larry Mullen, Jr is U2’s secret weapon so I’d like to see them let that guy go a little more. He does pick it up in the middle of the track. There is some good, signature Edge guitar in the middle and a nice but brief solo. The track is more polished than “You’re the Best Thing About Me.” There’s some audio tape of someone, a rapper, a preacher or somebody at the end that I could have done without. Like I said, not a great track,  but not bad.

“Blackout” is just a great song. The Rock Chick was in the B&V Lab when I played the two tracks and she took to this one immediately. It’s catchy and has some good guitar. I especially like Bono’s impassioned vocal on this track. I love the lyrics, “In the darkness is where you learn to see…” It’s a slinky, funky affair. I think you could dance to it or rock out to it and I mean that in a good way. If “Blackout” and “You’re the Best Thing…” are any indication, this album is headed in the right direction. Although, I will caveat that by saying, it’s hard to take a handful of songs and hear them out of the context of the full album and make any kind of guess about the overall package. I only have my hope for this album to go on and I haven’t had that on a U2 album since How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.

Keep your fingers crossed for a great U2 album! Cheers!

 

Concert Review: U2 with Beck, Kansas City, Sept 12, 2017: A “Night of Epic Rock And Roll” – Bono, #U2TheJoshuaTree2017

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*Photo by your intrepid blogger…if you squint you can see U2 performing “Where The Streets Have No Name” on the right hand side of the stage – September 12, 2017

When I heard U2 was touring in celebration of ‘The Joshua Tree’ 30th Anniversary, I knew I had to see this show… I was even looking into plane tickets and hotels in New York. I considered heading to the Chicago show, but that was the same weekend of the Tom Petty show here in Kansas City, reviewed earlier on B&V (Concert Review: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Kansas City, 6/2/2107), and I am very glad I stayed in town to see Petty. I have a long history with ‘The Joshua Tree’ and the emotional resonance it stirred in me in 1987 remains to this day… Luckily, they announced a KC show, at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs play. I told my friend, The Accountant, “There is a high likelihood I will weep several times during this performance…” Thus is the power of this music for me.

I can remember coming home on spring break, my senior year in college, or well, one of my senior years in college and finding out my brother had already purchased ‘The Joshua Tree’ on cassette tape. I had been on the U2 bandwagon, like most people, since the ‘War’ album. I purchased ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ the day it came out along with ‘Boy’… but I’d been busy with midterms and hadn’t had a chance to pick up ‘The Joshua Tree.’ I remember lying on the floor in my bedroom, with my brother’s cassette tape in my, yes, Sony Walkman cassette player… for you kids out there, think of it as an iPod that was infinitely less cool and considerably bulkier. I was blown away by the album. It had crystallized all the leaps forward and experiments they’d been working toward on ‘Unforgettable Fire.’ The musical universe had changed.

I graduated from college that following May and the Gods cursed me with a job outside of my hometown of Kansas City. I ended up working for a mega corporation and they put me, in all their cruelty, in Ft Smith, Arkansas…aka Ft Hell. The only good thing about Ft Hell was I met Arkansas Joel, a person who turned out to be a friend for life. The Corporation sent me, that December of 1987, down to Atlanta for training. It just so happened that while I was down there starting my training, Arkansas Joel was there finishing his classwork… he was six months ahead of me. He found me in the seedy apartment complex they housed the trainees in and slapped a flier down on the table in front of me. “Ken, U2 is playing here in Atlanta tonight… we’ve gotta go see this show.” Arkansas Joel was an even bigger U2 fan than I am… “We can scalp tickets…” At the time I didn’t have two nickels to rub together and I was concerned about the money… but in truth something else was holding me back. I had met a young lady from Louisiana with a Scarlett O’Hara accent and a mane of long, black hair… Her parents were both from Thailand… she was… alluring.

I smiled wistfully back at Arkansas Joel, slid the flier back across the table and said, “I can’t go… I’ve gotta see about a girl.” Joel was stunned I would give up the chance to see U2 on their biggest tour. Hell, I’m stunned that I said no. I ended up dating the girl for a year before we broke up… Joel, on the other hand, saw the concert of a lifetime. U2 came out in disguise and played a set of country songs to open up for the opening-act. It wasn’t until they played one of the country songs again, in the main set, that Joel realized he’d actually seen U2 twice in one night… Me, I’m left with a lot of regrets and stories about Shreveport. Sigh. The heart wants what the heart wants. If I learned anything, it’s don’t listen to your heart when you’re in your 20s… Every time I see Joel now he says, “Well, you could have seen U2 on ‘The Joshua Tree’ tour but….” Always choose the concert, not the romantic interest.

Now, here we are 30 years later and U2 has returned to celebrate the album I missed out on. I was further encouraged about the concert when last week U2 released their first single from the upcoming album ‘Songs of Experience,’ and it’s a great song. Then, it was announced that Beck would be the opening act. Beck hasn’t toured since he hurt his back 10 years ago. Then, Beck releases 2 new songs last week. The karmic stars were lining up in my favor.

Beck started out the night and I was delighted. He started out with “Devil’s Haircut” and then went right into “Go It Alone.” From there he shoots right into “Black Tambourine” also from the excellent ‘Guero’ album. I will admit, I thought the drums were a tad loud and drowned out the vocals but that was only on the first few performances. He continued with a couple more ‘Guero’ tracks, “Think I’m In Love,” (a favorite of mine and the Rock Chick’s, I might add) and “Que Ondo Guero.” His band looked huge, I still don’t know how many other players he had on stage with him. I was hoping he’d play something from his acoustic side and he didn’t disappoint with the ‘Sea Change’ track, “Lost Cause.” I was hoping for one or two more, perhaps a mini-acoustic set, but he went right back into the noisy side of his catalog with “Loser” which brought the crowd to it’s feet. I was also hoping to hear some of the new stuff… He did play “Wow” but that was the only track he played from the upcoming ‘Colors’ LP… Overall I liked Beck, but at the end of the show, in the middle of “Where It’s At” he does the band intro’s which consisted of each musician playing a snippet of a song. I heard a little Gary Newman, Talking Heads and a big drum solo… then he starts back into “Where It’s At.” Ok, I get it, your band is talented, but Beck could have played a couple more songs rather than do the “band medley” thing. He only played 50 minutes, which is long for an opener, but I was left wanting more. Overall I was glad I saw Beck but was somewhat disappointed in the performance… Maybe if he comes back as a headliner.

Then, to a recording of the Waterboy’s tune “The Whole Of The Moon,” Larry Mullen, Jr came all the way out to the satellite stage, followed by the Edge, Adam Clayton and finally Bono. The energy in the stadium was palpable. They tore into “Sunday Bloody Sunday” followed by “New Year’s Day.” It was an eviscerating rock attack. The Edge’s guitar was loud and he was rocking his ass off. Bono’s vocals needed to be turned up a bit, but he rectified that after the band had returned to the main stage. From the satellite stage they followed up the two ‘War’ songs with two from ‘The Unforgettable Fire.’ The whole 4-song opening set was almost a historical journey of how they got to ‘The Joshua Tree.’ “Pride (In The Name of Love)” was, as you’d expect, spectacular. But it was the preceding “Bad,” a song I’ve always loved but never heard them play live before, that blew my mind. Before I knew it, yes, I was fucking weeping. Luckily I pulled myself together for “Pride.”

After “Pride” was over the band walked the long bridge to the main stage. It was a physical metaphor for their career… when ‘The Joshua Tree’ came out they literally crossed a bridge to superstardom. As they walked toward the main stage to the keyboard intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name” I got goose bumps. It was one of the highlights of the night…and yes a tear drop or two fell for me during that moment. The Edge was amazing. Larry Mullen Jr’s bedrock drumming and Adam Clayton’s bass are such a great engine for U2… Bono was at his most sincere self. He said early on, “Lets let everything else slip away for tonight, let’s enjoy an epic evening of rock and roll…” It certainly was. Although my friend Jean-Genie who was up in the nose-bleed seats said the sound was bad and she groused about the video behind them. It was great from where I was sitting.

After “Where the Streets…” naturally they proceeded to play the entire album, in it’s original sequence. It’s always dicey when a band chooses to perform an entire record as a set. Springsteen did a pretty good job with ‘The River’ but it was such a sprawling mess of a masterpiece it worked. I’ve seen the Cult do both ‘Love’ and ‘Electric’ and both were sensational. But of course, the Cult are a hard rock band so most songs on their albums are of “a piece,” if you will. I did see Motley Crue do the ‘Dr Feelgood’ album and, alas, it was awful. The pacing of an album is rarely set up for concert pacing.

The crowd stayed with U2 for the first half of ‘The Joshua Tree,’ the half with the hits. I’ve seen bands excite a crowd and I’ve seen a crowd’s energy elevate a band. Toward the second half of the album, around the time of “In God’s Country” the crowd’s energy started to flag. I don’t know if people just don’t turn records over any more, or they just listen for the hits. U2 was certainly holding up their end, delivering rocking versions of these songs. I was  lapping up all the side 2 stuff, it’s the stuff they never play. “Trip Through Your Wires” is one of the Rock Chick’s all time favorite songs, as it is mine. I know people who are really in to side 2 of ‘The Joshua Tree’ as much as some people fetishize side 2 of the Stones’ ‘Tattoo You,’ it’s that great, people… but alas, Kansas City just stood there. “Exit,” the next to last song rocked with a ferocity I had almost forgotten. It was a true highlight. “Mothers of the Disappeared” found Bono back out on the satellite stage, on his knees in supplication to a video image of, literally, the Mothers of the Disappeared, holding candles. It was moving, striking imagery.

After ‘The Joshua Tree’ was over, the band left the stage. The post-album set, or I guess in this case, the encore was a six song blast of rock and roll. They led off with two ‘All You Can’t Leave Behind’ gems, “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation,” which I hadn’t heard since that tour. Bono continued to deliver positive messages without being preachy at all. He’s a gifted man. And I love his lurch-jump, weird dance move he makes. It’s like a nervous tic. The band did take one brief shot at Trump in a video, but other than that U2 stayed positive and apolitical – “left, right, young, old, everyone is welcome at a U2 show!” Bono exclaimed.

The next track was a screaming, rocking version of “Vertigo.” That tune never gets old. I did zero research on the set list and yet I knew we’d hear that one. I was thrilled they actually did the new song, “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” which I sang loudly to my wife. Live, “Best Thing” really rocks. It translates very well in concert. The way the Edge is playing guitar at these shows bodes very well for the new album.

The final two tracks were from ‘Achtung Baby.’ “Ultraviolet Light (Light My Way)” was a highlight in that it was a deep album cut and totally unexpected. It was performed to a video backdrop of many of the strong women from history from Maya Angelou to Malala to Patti Smith. The message, let’s make history, HERstory… As the father of a daughter, I was moved. Finally, as you would expect, they ended with a beautiful crowd singalong for “One.” It was the perfect ending.

And with that, U2 disappeared into the night… As Bono promised, it was an “epic night of rock and roll.” And at last, thirty years later, I finally exorcised the demons created by a very bad decision on a cold, December Atlanta night. Buy the ticket folks, take the ride!

 

U2: “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” The Strong New Single From ‘Songs Of Experience’

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U2 has dropped their first single from the upcoming ‘Songs Of Experience’ this week. U2 are notorious for taking their time in the studio so this was a little bit of a surprise. Since they usually wait up to five years between albums, this new song is somewhat unexpected. I’d heard they’d recently gone back into the studio, inspired by the world’s current political situation, to flesh out some new ideas. They’re currently in the middle of a tour celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of ‘The Joshua Tree,’ that I am proud to say I’ll be attending at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. So naturally, I wasn’t expecting anything new right now. Coincidentally, Beck just dropped a couple of songs this week and he’s the opening act (Beck: Two New Songs, “Dear Life,” “Up All Night,” And Finally, New LP ‘Colors’ Slated For Oct ). I’m hoping to hear how all of this new music translates to the stage. It’s just a great time to be alive. Well, at least musically it is…

First singles can be a tricky business for any band. U2 of late seem to have trouble picking first singles. If we look backwards perhaps we can discern how good ‘Songs of Experience’ will be. For their first single from the last album, ‘Songs of Innocence’ U2 chose the up-beat “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” While I’d like to give them credit for citing what appears to be an influence, I’m more of a Stooges guy than a Ramones guy. And like the Ramones, I felt “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” was ok. It wasn’t awful but it certainly didn’t rank up there with some of the anthemic lead singles like say, “Pride (In The Name of Love)” or “Beautiful Day.” Maybe I was lukewarm on this tune because they had just released the extraordinary song “Ordinary Love” from a Nelson Mandela bio-pic and it is one of their best songs, ever. It’s hard to compete with “Ordinary Love.” They also had just released a song for the Bono’s RED project, “Invisible” and I liked it better than “Joey Ramone.” Listening to it again, it’s not a bad tune, but the expectations they’d set with those other two songs, released just prior to ‘Songs of Innocence” had set the bar pretty high. I thought ‘Innocence’ was pretty “meh” as a record…It wasn’t horrible but I’d hoped for more. The release strategy of putting it on everyone’s Apple device was… ill-advised.

For the album prior to that, ‘No Line On the Horizon’ they chose to release the ridiculous “Get On Your Boots” as the lead-off single. ‘No Line’ was another in what I like to call U2’s “experimental” phases. They brought in legendary producer Eno whose goal it seems is to make U2 sound inscrutable. That album was more of a mess than ‘Innocence’ ever dreamed of being. “Boots” was one of three weird songs right in the middle of the album that attempted to be “ironic.” U2 isn’t great at being ironic despite that whole Zoo Station period where they actually pulled it off. Why they didn’t choose the much superior “Magnificent” for the first single remains a mystery to everybody except U2 and maybe Eno… that sneaky fucker.

Finally, if we go back to “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” (the answer, “with love,” per Bono), you get a big, anthemic, kick ass rock tune as your first single with “Vertigo.” I’m guessing that’s a track they’re still playing live… at least I hope so or Tuesday will be a little disappointing for the Rock Chick. There was a time when I thought she was going to get “Vertigo” tattooed across her shoulder blades. She played the shit out of that album… “Crumbs From Your Table” was another tune she was fond of, but I digress… “Uno, Dos, Tres, Catorce…” what an opening. That whole album U2 finally revived the sound of the Edge’s guitar. He rocks all over that thing. “Vertigo” was the first salvo from a classic record.

Which all leads me to “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” the current lead off single from ‘Songs of Experience.’ My friend, Arkansas Joel, who is a bigger U2 fan than even I am, accuses me of being soft on U2 when it comes to criticism, but he’s still angry at them for ‘Pop.’ Move on Joel, anyone can make a mistake and ‘Pop’ was better than we give it credit for. Anyway, I really like this song. It’s just a rocky, straight-ahead love song. Like Randy Newman’s recent song, “She Chose Me,” I wish I’d written this song for the Rock Chick because, well, she is the best thing about me… and I’m luckily “the kind of trouble that (she) enjoys.” It feels like forever since I’ve heard this spidery guitar sound from Edge.  The track opens with Bono’s voice and a great guitar riff under him. It’s a great start. Bono’s singing is passionate and longing, which is the perfect tone for this track. Larry Mullen, Jr never gets the credit he deserves as a drummer. Adam Clayton plays an insistent bass line… I love everything about this song. It’s tight, rocking and sincere, all the things that made me love U2 in the first place.

What this portends for the new album is anybody’s guess. If the rest of the album is up to the quality of “Best Thing” then this is going to be a really special album from U2. At this point all we have is this song and I recommend buying it immediately and playing it extremely loud to someone you love… “when you look so good and baby you don’t even know…” man, I love that feeling.

U2’s Ten Greatest Non Album Tracks & 5 Best Covers, In Honor of Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary

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Excitement is brewing here at the B&V Labs in anticipation of U2’s tour to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of their landmark album, ‘The Joshua Tree,’ swinging through town. I can’t believe it’s been thirty years since that album came out. When it was released in March of 1987, I was near the end of my time at university. I had purchased ‘War’ on vinyl and had ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ on, of all things, cassette. Mistakes were made, people, mistakes were made. I thought cassettes would be around longer than vinyl and I could play them in my car. I was, naturally, mistaken. I can remember laying on the floor of my room at my parent’s house, on spring break, listening to my brother’s cassette copy of ‘The Joshua Tree’ on a Sony Walkman and mistakenly thinking, after only 1 low-fi listen, that there was nothing as big and catchy as “Pride (In The Name of Love).” Obviously, subsequent listens cleared up that misconception. Of course the night I first listened to my brother’s cassette, I believe there had been some beer consumed which likely clouded my judgment.

By the fall of 1987 I had gone to work for my corporate overlords, and in their wisdom they sent me to live in Ft Smith, Arkansas. I consider those years, my time in exile. I was banished from civilization the way Dante was kicked out of Florence. Instead of turning to writing epic poetry, I turned to rock n roll. It was in exile that I met my dear friend Arkansas Joel. He was an even bigger U2 fanatic than I was. By that fall I had ‘The Joshua Tree’ on vinyl and it was in high, high rotation. And yes, I taped it so I could listen to it in my car. We all did that in those days. The sound of cassettes was always inferior to vinyl…

As fate would have it, Joel and I found ourselves in Atlanta, where all the corporate training was done, at the same time. It just so happened that the ‘Joshua Tree’ tour was in Atlanta while both Joel and I were there. When he found out, Joel sought me out on the campus and said, “We’ve gotta see this show… we can scalp some tickets.” At the time, I was enamored with one of my classmates, a young woman whose parents had migrated from Thailand to Louisiana. She was full blooded Thai but spoke with a sugar-sweet, southern accent. What can I say, I was smitten. The class I was in was having a party that night, at this young lady and her roommates’ place. And, sadly, like Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting, I just shook my head at Joel and said, “I’ve got to go see about a girl…” Mistakes were made, people, mistakes were made. Joel frowned, he can be hostile at times, and said, “This will be a mistake you will regret for the rest of your life…” But, he knew I’d made up my mind. Chicks before guitar licks? The shame, the shame.

Naturally, Joel was right. The U2 show that night was spectacular. U2, wearing disguises, actually opened up for their opening act, and played country music. It wasn’t until they broke into one of the country songs from the early set that Joel realized it had been them all along. That’s a story you can tell your grandkids. And naturally, the Louisiana-Thai woman has long since left me behind. In my defense we did date for a year, but those records are sealed until twenty-five years after everyone who was involved is dead…

So while I missed it the first time around, I am going to see the U2 30th Anniversary ‘Joshua Tree’ tour come hell or high-water. Besides, the Rock Chick would never forgive me if we didn’t attend. Like Arkansas Joel, she’s kind of a U2 fanatic. It was their LP, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ that we bonded over when we first started dating. As my buddy Steve likes to say, “U2 is the soundtrack of my life, man.” Me too, Steve, me too.

To commemorate this auspicious date, ‘The Joshua Tree’ turning 30, I put together a short list of their best deep tracks. Most of these songs aren’t on their proper albums. Some have come out on greatest hits/b-side collections. Some of these tracks came out on extended anniversary editions of older albums. These are 10 choice deep cuts that every U2 fan should own… After that I put a brief list together of their best cover songs. Seek these tunes out… Learn them, love them. And never, never choose a girl or boy over a concert… concert memories  last, relationships, well….

  1. “Wave of Sorrow (Birdland)”; ‘The Joshua Tree (Deluxe Edition)’ – This great outtake from ‘The Joshua Tree’ is an homage of sorts to Patti Smith. It’s of similar quality to all the stuff they put out on the original ‘Joshua Tree’ album.
  2. “Miss Sarajevo”; ‘The Best of 1990-2000’ – This was originally from a side project that U2 called The Passengers, where they invited other musicians to collaborate. Pavarotti’s vocal here is epic. Believe it or not, George Michael does a great cover of this record, a sentence I never thought I’d type.
  3. “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”‘ ‘The Complete U2’ – A great, forgotten track from a forgotten soundtrack…
  4. “Lady With the Spinning Head (UV1)”; ‘Achtung Baby: B-Sides and Bonus Tracks’ – I have to wonder how this song missed the cut for ‘Achtung Baby.’ There are several versions of this song out there, make sure you get the one off this album.
  5. “Blow Your House Down”; ‘Achtung Baby: B-Sides And Bonus Tracks’ – I think they started work on this during the sessions for ‘Rattle and Hum.’ This is a great rocking tune. I turned the Rock Chick onto this one over the weekend and it’s in high rotation here at the house.
  6. “Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad”; ‘The Complete U2’ – When ‘The Joshua Tree’ hit number 1 on the album charts, Edge and Bono went to see Sinatra in Vegas. He announced that they were in the audience, along with the fact they’d just topped the album charts. He then said, in his characteristic way, “Well, I don’t what they’re spending their money on, but you can tell it’s not their clothes.” I love Old Blue Eyes. Purportedly, they wrote this song specifically for Frank. Sadly, he never got around to recording it.
  7. “Fast Cars”; ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ – This was a bonus track on the rocking 2002 album. If you didn’t get the bonus edition of the album, go back and pick up this track.
  8. “Ordinary Love”; ‘Mandela – Long Walk To Freedom (Soundtrack)’ – Rolling Stone magazine just did a “top 50” list of U2 songs. Inexplicably this soaring ballad was left off the list.
  9. “Invisible (RED) Edit Version”; single – They only released this song as a hidden track on the disappointing ‘Songs of Innocence.’ If you can still find this version, snap it up.
  10. “Lucifer’s Hands”; ‘Songs of Innocence+’ – After the debacle of the Apple release of this album, they released the ‘+’ which featured some extra tracks and some acoustic versions of songs from the album. This song was better than most of the stuff from the actual album.

And just for fun, kids, I thought I’d provide the Top 5 U2 Cover songs. I love U2, but I really love it when they do cover tunes. They seem to relax more when they’re covering other people’s music. They’ve got a bunch of good ones, but these are the B&V favorites…

  1. “All Along the Watchtower”; ‘Rattle And Hum’ – They tear into this Dylan cover. Sure, Hendrix’s version is definitive, but this is a great version…”three chords and the truth” baby!
  2. “Dancing Barefoot”; ‘B-Sides 1990-2000’ – Great Patti Smith cover. Great guitar work from Edge.
  3. “Night and Day”; ‘Achtung Baby: B-Sides And Bonus Tracks’ – U2 turning Cole Porter upside down.
  4. “Paint It Black”; “Achtung Baby: B-Sides And Bonus Tracks’ – Well, I love the Stones and “Paint It Black” is a great song. These guys do it proud.
  5. “Satellite Of Love”; ‘Achtung Baby: B-Sides And Bonus Tracks’ – I finally did see U2, with Arkansas Joel, but it wasn’t until the Zoo TV tour. And, to my amazement they did this Lou Reed song live that night. This is the studio version but it’s great too!

Enjoy! I hope all of you get to see U2 on this upcoming tour. It’ll certainly be fun for those of us who missed it 30 years ago because we were, well, stupid.

 

U2 Live In Paris: HBO, a Recap, Bravo

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Like a lot of people I was devastated by the attacks in Paris on November 13th. Many bands, including U2, cancelled concerts and tours in the wake of the senseless violence. U2 was scheduled to do a live concert broadcast on HBO the same weekend that the terrorist attacks occurred. They ended up heading home, to Dublin, for what was supposed to be the end of this leg of the Innocence+Experience Tour. Instead of ending the tour, and I was delighted they did this, they returned to Paris on December 6th and 7th. I tend to agree with them that it was important for them to return to Paris as soon as possible.

Bono was quoted as saying, “This is the first direct hit on music”. He also said the band “couldn’t get back to Paris fast enough”. I think that is a fantastic sentiment! If there is any band who is perfect to take the stage at a moment like this, it’s U2. I remember seeing them several times in the US after 9-11 and it was an incredibly moving experience.

As a veritable soundtrack to all of our lives, I felt the music of U2 would be a salve, obviously not a cure, to this “direct hit on music” and on Paris. I tuned in Sunday night to see the first broadcast of the concert on HBO. It was nothing like being there, so this is not a review, but a recap. These are my reactions to watching it on TV from the safety of my couch, which as we all know at BourbonAndVinyl is nothing like being live at a concert.

They opened with the newer song, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) from their latest album, “Songs of Innocence”. The song sounds nothing like the Ramones and frankly I never dug the Ramones, which is almost rock and roll blasphemy. However, the energy in the arena was palpable and the song got the crowd going. Following that they went back in the catalog for “Vertigo” and “I Will Follow” which really got the crowd on their feet. At this point, I was over the moon. This was truly going to be a special night for Paris – the special night they all deserve. I can’t say enough about the stage and the technological spectacle U2’s show is.

The rest of the beginning of the show continued with tunes from “Songs of Innocence”. They ran through “Iris”, “Song for Someone” and “Cedarwood Road” among others. At BourbonAndVinyl we’re all about established artists doing their new material. However, I felt my mind drifting during this part of the set. Part of the problem is that Bono kept doing these clunky, spoken introductions for the songs, giving them context. It reminded me of some footage I’d seen of the Who’s “Quadarophenia” tour where Daltrey felt compelled to explain the music. Like a joke, if you have to explain it, it’s not working. Probably the most effective of the newer tunes was “Raised By Wolves”. I will say that the fact that “Songs of Innocence” was framed by U2’s formative period which was informed by the sectarian violence of Ireland’s Catholics vs Protestants had some relevance to the Paris situation, but still something was lost for me. I was disappointed in the new arrangement of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and more than a little horrified by the explosion sounds. I might have edited that out had I been them. It was powerful none the less.

When the show really turned around for me was when U2 climbed up into the “wall” or “tower” in the middle of their stage for a brief set. The effects and lighting were amazing. The song “Invisible”, which might be one of the best of their newer material was truly moving. It was riveting. The line, “their is no them” is so powerful. “There’s only us”. I love it.

Then they moved out to what I’d call the “B” stage and the momentum continued to build. I particularly loved “October” from their sophomore album and the rendition of “Every Breaking Wave” performed may be the most beautiful version of that song I’ve heard. I must admit, “Ordinary Love” would have also been perfect in that spot as well but now I’m just getting greedy.

The concert then hit high gear. They returned to the main stage for a run through some of their greatest material – “Bullet the Blue Sky” (I would have preferred Bono not use the megaphone, but I get the artistry of it), “Where the Streets Have No Name” (which always moves me to tears), “Pride (In the Name of Love)”. It was amazing. Bono kept saying, and this is a perfect sentiment, “Love is stronger than fear”. Bravo Bono!

They wrapped up with a powerful encore that started with “City of Blinding Lights” which would have benefited by not having the young dude on stage with Bono. Musicians, what are you gonna do? “Beautiful Day” was soaring as usual. The fact that they went all the way back to “The Unforgettable Fire” for “Bad” was an all time highlight for me. “One” was, as usual, emotional.

They saved the best for last however. They brought out the Eagles of Death Metal. I was so happy for the EoDM. U2 and Eagles of Death Metal tore through Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” and then, in an amazingly gracious move, a healing move, U2 turned the stage over to the Eagles of Death Metal and let them perform a song, and perform they did. It was inspiring to watch those guys.

This concert proved that art, rock and roll and love are more powerful than anybody with a gun. Music heals. Music brings people together. Music makes life special. I applaud U2 and the Eagles of Death Metal for reminding us of those facts in the wake of the tragedies that occurred in Paris a month ago.

As U2 famously sang, “Don’t let the bastards drag you down”.

Cheers!