With The Fray
05.21.11 | Invesco Field
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Say what you will about U2. Name another band that can fill a stadium these days... Time's up. Drawing a blank? That's because there aren't any -- certainly not any from this era. That said, you've got to give it the band its props: Without question, it can still put asses in the seats. Just the same, let's remember: The band has had more than three decades to cultivate its following. That's an eternity by today's standards.
By contrast, openers, the Fray -- who, along with U2's many other descendents, Coldplay, Kings of Leon, Muse, Arcade Fire, is the the closest we come to something that passes for iconic these days -- is a bit of a marvel for still standing after two records and nearly a decade in the game. That said, not to take anything away from U2 or those bands, but c'mon, is it really all that noteworthy to be the tallest guy in a room full of short people?
But let's forget about all that for a moment, and talk about the actual tour itself. There's certainly been no shortage of folks, particularly within the U2 camp, willing to pat themselves on the back for the grandiosity of the whole spectacle. And to be clear, it is a spectacle. The towering, ostentatious structure -- which, you can probably see from space, and which takes nearly as long to erect as it took God to speak us into existence -- is truly something to behold, the revolving bridges, the giant LEDs, the dazzling illumination.
But is it truly magnificent, or have we simply become so accustomed to not being dazzled in this new century that all you need to win us over is a few megatons of steel and some flashing lights? Are we are so easily awed that we're oblivious to the fact that what we have here is really a lot of sizzle and not a lot of steak?
As I looked around at the awestruck expressions plastered to the faces of those around me as the band lowered its LED screens, cloaking itself with a mesh of screens that resembled a giant bug zapper during "Zooropa" and the fittingly titled "City of Blinding Lights," I couldn't help but be reminded of that scene from A Bug's Life, in which one winged creature pleads with another: "No! Hurry! No! Don't look at the light!" Inexplicably drawn to the glowing display, his counterpart responds intoxicatingly: "I can't help it. It's so beautiful." That, as you might recall, is immediately followed by the unmistakable sound of his demise, BZZZT!
I will give them this, though: there really wasn't a bad seat in the house. As advertised, the sight lines were mostly unobstructed. The only place in the stadium that might have been less desirable were the seats of those who happened to be seated behind the stage in the South Stands. It's not that you couldn't see. It's just that although Larry Mullen's drum riser rotated, and Bono and the other guys made a concerted effort to journey across the bridges to the outside track that circled the stage, where they played to the various sides of the stadium, for the most part, the outfit played facing the opposite direction.
But I'm just nitpicking here, really; you could lodge such a complaint with that sort of seating arrangement at any show. Most shows block that section off, actually. There really isn't an effective way to play in the round a full 360° -- well, unless the stage rotated constantly (talk about vertigo.) Fortunately, there was plenty else to distract those folks.
Which brings us to the visuals: Now maybe it's because I still have that epic Roger Waters Wall show at the Pepsi Center from this past November fresh in my memory -- and perhaps that has spoiled me for all subsequent arena rock experiences -- but for all of its pomp and circumstance, I was a bit underwhelmed by U2's much ballyhooed 360° Tour, particularly the visuals, some nods to previous outings.
In the PopMart-era, this sort of thing might've been considered ground-breaking, but by today's standards, the random images and sound bites laid over and interspersed with stream of consciousness-like text felt a little hackneyed. By now, we've seen it all before. A thousand times. And better. Not only from this band, but from other acts. In a much smaller context, even. Honestly, I was probably more arrested by Muse's presentation, and Madonna did a similar thing cloaking herself for a few songs with a wall of LEDs descended from the rafters.
So what do you have left when you strip away all of the pageantry? The thing that truly sets U2 apart from everybody else, the only thing that matters in any context or conversation: the music. To that end, Bono and company were firing on all cylinders. But by-god, they should be by now. They've had nearly forty years to hone their musicianship and showmanship. At this point in their career, they've really got nothing else to prove. By all accounts, they could reasonably be excused for phoning it in, like we've seen countless other bands do in the twilight of their career. But they didn't.
You've got to hand it to the dudes: they still perform with the same impassioned vigor they had when I first saw the band at McNichols Arena in 1987 on the Joshua Tree tour, when we were all much younger. Stunningly, if you look at footage of that night, immortalized in Rattle and Hum, the Irish foursome looks -- give or take some mileage on their fifty-something mugs -- and sounds very much the same as it did all those years ago. Better, even. The vocal interplay between Bono and the Edge is remarkable. The latter's harmonies are sublime, and the chemistry between the four of them has transcended the realm of fraternal to where they now appear to be telepathically linked like lovers responding instinctively to unspoken cues. I'm guessing they probably finish each others' sentences at this point.
By virtue of this, despite the fact that the band lost me long ago thanks to its many ill-conceived diversions and attempts to reinvent itself -- that I've since grown to appreciate in small doses, BTW -- every time Bono reached up into his upper register on songs like "All I Want Is You," he evoked the same feeling from me that I had in my gut when I first heard the band. I got a similar sensation when the Edge strapped on his Gibson Explorer and blanketed us with his distinctive ringing arpeggios.
Overall while there were some lulls in the set -- songs from the latter era which I could take or leave, honestly -- there were plenty of standout cuts and a few genuinely poignant moments. One such instance came just before "Stay (Far Away, So Close)," a stripped down number featuring just Bono and the Edge on acoustic, which, the latter recalled, was originally titled "Sinatra," and then wistfully went on to relate a "very unromantic time" for the band, as he put it, some twenty years ago, when they were in Berlin working on songs for Achtung Baby and what would later become Zooropa. "The wall was coming down in Germany. There was one coming up in the studio," he recalled, pausing a few beats before adding, "but we're still here."
Indeed. Other highlights included Bono swinging back and forth on a (clearly very sturdy) circular, neon-lit mike hanging from the rafters during "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" and "With or Without You." Also got a kick out of the nod Bono gave to the Reverend Harold Camping, the notorious doomsayer whose place in history has been cemented (and thus footnoted) by his ill-fated prediction of the supposed rapture that was slated to happen yesterday. "Such a disappointment," Bono muttered as the band cued up "Until the End of the World," a fitting ditty ("Everybody having a good time/Except you/You were talking about the end of the world") given the context. "It might feel like the end of the world somewhere," he said, "but not here."
The other striking thing about the show was just how engaged the crowd was. Maybe it's because I haven't seen a true stadium show in some time, but I have to admit there's something about seeing an entire throng sing along in unison that takes your breath away. It was almost spiritual.
The whole experience certainly provided our local openers (who Bono cheekily nodded to with, "How about the Fray? Sort of felt like a hometown show for them") a template to work from if it ever hopes for this show to represent a passing of the torch, as some have asserted. Fact is, it's a bit premature to entertain any such notion at this stage of the band's career. Two songs into its ten-song set, as Isaac Slade sang the once prescient words to his band's 2005 hit, "Over My Head (Cable Car)," that part about "Everyone knows I'm in over my head," it seemed glaringly obvious that this sentiment no longer rings true. These guys are not in over their heads.
Despite the scope of this particular gig -- arguably the most monumental of the band's career, opening for U2 at the biggest venue in the Fray's hometown, less than a decade after forming -- Slade and company appeared completely at ease (well, let's just say they didn't seem like they were soiling themselves). The quartet -- Slade, guitarists Joe King and Dave Welsh, and drummer Ben Wysocki -- played perhaps the one of the tightest set I've ever witnessed, and as you know, I've been covering them since the beginning. Overall, they played with admirable confidence, conviction and energy.
The songs were conveyed with just the right amount of emotion, and musically, they were performed with notable precision. By now, these guys are seasoned, road-tested vets, but they play with a casual assurance that makes it all seem visceral. While offering up lived-in versions of their older songs (the new intro to "How to Save a Life" is pretty "badass," to borrow one of Slade's favorite new superlatives), they've also taken care not to tarnish the accessibility of the originals.
In terms of their presence: The moments of spontaneity seemed, well, spontaneous and exuberant, rather than times past, where those moments felt measured and staged. When Slade hopped on top of his piano this time around, it seemed like he was geniunely swept up in the moment, as opposed to affecting some sort of rock star pose. For his part, Slade, who spent a good portion of the set roaming the stage, engaging the crowd and thanking Colorado for propelling his band to this stage, seems to be growing nicely into his role as frontman.
Just the same, let's not put the cart before the horse here. The band hasn't quite written the songs to elevate it to this next level -- as evidenced by the crowd's middling response. Although there were plenty of folks beaming with pride and hanging onto the hometown band's every note, there were just as many empty seats and disinterested expressions. As much poise as the band has at this point, and as much charisma as its frontman possesses, they simply don't have the magnetism of an act like U2 yet. In fact, it's generous to even mention them both in the same breath.
All that said, it's probably worth noting that the Fray is barely on its third album, which, judging from the new songs performed yesterday ("Here We Are," "Heartbeat" and "The Fighter"), sounds like it might be a bit of a departure for the band. For what it's worth, U2 had barely started coming into its own by its third outing. The act had just begun to hit its stride on War, which was, of course, succeeded by some of the best music of its career. Time will tell if the same holds true for the Fray.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: That show I mentioned in 1987? I was fired from my first job making pizzas for attending. That's how big of a fan I was. With every album after Achtung Baby, though, I became less and less captivated with U2, and before long, the mystique that had always shrouded the band eventually began to unravel. By the Way: Perhaps somebody else has pointed this out before, but doesn't Bono seem like some mutant hybrid of Robin Williams and Bobcat Goldthwait in leather trousers and wrap around shades. Random Detail: By chance, a few nights before the show, I had the good fortune of hanging out with a few affable members of the 360° crew. As they regaled us with stories of how much thought and care the group puts into constantly refining its show, from crafting the setlist to tweaking various elements, the admiration in their voice was unmistakable. For them, touring with U2 is truly a labor of love.
Even Better Than The Real Thing I Will Follow Get On Your Boots Magnificent Mysterious Ways Elevation Until The End Of The World All I Want Is You Stay (Faraway, So Close!) Beautiful Day Pride (In The Name Of Love) Miss Sarajevo Zooropa City Of Blinding Lights Vertigo I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight / Discothèque (snippet) / Please (snippet) Sunday Bloody Sunday Scarlet Walk On / You'll Never Walk Alone (snippet)
ENCORE One Where The Streets Have No Name Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me With Or Without You Moment of Surrender
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Invesco Field at Mile High
05.21.11 - Denver, CO
Here We Are Over My Head (Cable Car) All At Once Turn Me On (Burning) How to Save a Life Ungodly Hour You Found Me Heartbeat Never Say Never The Fighter