NTREAL -- Bono and Adam Clayton are sitting on a couch in a downtown hotel last week after a U2 concert, talking T-shirts. Suddenly they're 17 years old again hanging out at punk clubs in their hometown of Dublin, circa 1977.
"The Ramones, the Clash, the Buzzcocks," says Clayton, the band's bassist, reminiscing about the bands that he, Bono and the other future members of U2 — guitarist the Edge and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. — witnessed and drew inspiration from as teenagers.
"The Buzzcocks — the melodies were so great," Bono says, mimicking Pete Shelley furiously strumming a guitar. "What was their drummer's name (John Maher)? Larry used one of his parts on one of our songs."
"I took a few things from (the Stranglers') JJ Burnel – a great bass player," Clayton adds.
"Yeah, we opened for the Stranglers once and I asked him to wear one of our badges on stage, and he – rightly – told me to (expletive) off," Bono says with a grin. "So we cleaned out their dressing room, took all the beer."
Perhaps to even things out, Clayton wore his Stranglers T-shirt on stage earlier in the evening in front of 20,000-plus fans, the final night of the band's sold-out, four-night residency in Montreal. It served as a prelude to U2's five-night Chicago run at the United Center, which begins Wednesday.
The show finds U2 serving as tour guides to their earliest days as a struggling band in Dublin, and even further back to the adventures and tragedies that shaped their young lives. The set list focuses on an album that had a difficult birth and that engendered some of the most divisive reviews in the band's career, "Songs of Innocence."
The album was released last September as a free auto-download to hundreds of millions of iTunes users. U2 called it a "gift," but some recipients called it spam, and the backlash likely colored perceptions of the album. The bland production, which suggested U2 imitating less ambitious but commercially successful bands who imitate U2, turned the release into an underwhelming prelude for a worldwide tour.
But the tour expands upon and illuminates the songs in a way that reveals there's a lot more to "Songs of Innocence" than the conservative production would suggest. The album was in direct response to the more experimental approach taken on the previous U2 studio release, "No Line on the Horizon" (2009), with longtime collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. That album didn't produce the radio hit the band coveted.
"We probably should've allowed it ('No Line …') to be as experimental as it started out – Eno would've loved it if we would've left it that way," says the Edge, backstage at the Bell Centre arena that hosted the band's Montreal residency. "But the weight of expectation from our other work influenced our decision to try to write some songs that pushed things in a more accessible direction, and while 'Moment of Surrender' is one of our best songs, not every song on the album is as good as that."
So U2 decided to shake things up in a big way this time and work with current hit-making producers such as Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton (who has worked with the Black Keys and Gnarls Barkley), Ryan Tedder (Beyonce, Madonna) and Paul Epworth (Adele). The quartet tinkered off and on for years to get the songs into coherent shape. Finally, it winnowed the many ideas to a single 11-song album, with a follow-up studio album tentatively scheduled for release next year.
"This time we felt like we wanted to embrace what's going on out there in terms of production," the Edge says. "We wanted to stay current with the culture. We're open to new things. Ryan Tedder has a great talent for recognizing songs, what's a great melody, what's a great hook. As a band we want songs that really land with people, because they don't have time to sit with an album. If an album doesn't connect quickly, there's a good chance it won't be listened to at all."
But the album still didn't resonate in the way the band would've hoped.
"If I'm honest, there is something about the sound of the record that is a little too organized," Bono says in a separate interview. "That's what happens when you're too long in the studio."
But the band is unified in its belief that the songs are more durable than the last batch, and the tour is a concerted effort to make the case. "With the last album, we tried reverse engineering, turning experimental pieces into songs, and it didn't work," the Edge says. "This album, we wanted to start with songs we believe in and then get as experimental as we want."
Yet the notion of looking back for source material initially made the guitarist wary. "Dublin is a very fertile place to start writing about, but I wanted to do something forward looking," he says. "I'm scared of nostalgia. I didn't want the songs to be too sentimental. Bono kept trying to find ways to explore the past with honesty, to avoid those traps, and he did it by focusing on pivotal early experiences that shape who we are for the rest of our lives."
If the studio versions obscure just how intimate and emotional the songs are, the concert interpretations amplify those qualities by stripping away some of the slickness. The autobiographical lyrics inform the first half of the show, with Bono at one point meditating on the death of his mother, Iris, when he was 14, leading fans on a virtual walk through his old neighborhood of northern Dublin and into his bedroom on "Cedarwood Road" and "Song for Someone," and through the innocence-shattering carnage of "Raised by Wolves."
The more personal songs that open the show melt into the more outward-looking ones in the concert's second half – the grief and rage of the teenager's coming-of-age turning into adulthood and the recognition that hope exists only as part of a community. Savvy visuals, stage design and unusually crisp sound help turn the 2 ½-hour journey into something resembling a two-part play. But rather than Broadway bombast, the band presents some of the rawest music it has brought to the stage in decades.
A bridge running through the center of the arena joins two stages, which are both extensively employed. At points the bridge turns into a virtual reproduction of the band's corner of Dublin. The sound emanates not from a single source on the stage, but from a dozen speaker clusters hung from the ceiling across the arena, creating an immersive effect.
"It allows us to project the music without it being enormously loud," says audio director Joe O'Herlihy, the gray-bearded sound guru who has worked with the band since 1978. "This is a very direct show with songs that when played live make you feel as though they're finally reaching their full potential, like they were unfinished in the studio. There's another identity that formulates when they play these songs live, and it's moving to me."
This from a band that has become a much more complicated beast than the one that first toured America in 1980 and played hundreds of club and small theater shows before graduating to arenas. U2 now partners with Live Nation Entertainment, a multi-tiered corporation that controls most of the large concert venues and the biggest concert ticketing company in North America, and charges up to $250 for its shows. At the same time, Bono continues to work steadily as a global advocate-activist-lobbyist for the world's poorest countries. During an off-day in Montreal, he traveled to Ottawa to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of the House of Commons to push for AIDS relief in Africa.
"The world needs more Canada," was his mantra on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and on the stage in Montreal.
The apparent contradictions abound, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the current show is that Bono confronts them directly. In an imaginary conversation between his younger self and the multimillionaire rock star he is now, the young Bono taunts, "You forgot who you are … You've got 300 times more than you need."
It's a bracing moment that humanizes a show that is scaled for an arena, yet strives for intimacy.
"We loved punk, but we took the ideas of punk and expanded them," says Clayton, still sporting his Stranglers T-shirt from that night's concert. "The things Bono talks about and embraces in these songs come from a very real place for all of us in Dublin."