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U2’s Stadium Tour Revs Back Up in Italy

Backstage and on the jet, as U2 reboot their epic 360° show

Sep 10, 2010

Roberto Serra - Iguana/Getty Images Entertainment

”˜I sang like a bird tonight,” Bono says with a broad smile, standing in the aisle of U2’s tour jet shortly after takeoff from Turin, Italy, where the Irish band has just dazzled 45,000 people at Olympic Stadium. “I knew I could do that. I didn’t know about the rest of it. But once I got started, I knew it was going to be all right.”

The August 6 show, the opening date of a two-month European tour, marked U2’s triumphant return to the road with their outdoor digital-age spectacular, the 360Ëš Tour. The Turin performance ”“ dramatically revamped from the 2009 concerts, with rarely played songs from U2’s catalogue and three unreleased numbers ”“ was also Bono’s first gig since he underwent emergency spinal surgery on May 21 in Munich to repair a herniated disk that had caused partial paralysis in both legs. The operation forced U2 to cancel an appearance at Britain’s Glastonbury festival and to postpone 16 North American stadium shows until 2011. When the band convened in Turin for several days of rehearsals before the show, Bono had been out of rehabilitation for only two weeks.

But when the singer walked onto U2’s gigantic circular stage that night, to the dirty-rock surge of the new instrumental ”˜Return of the Stingray Guitar,’ he prowled the outer catwalk like a prizefighter, throwing punches in the air. Bono also jumped to the fast, jubilant beat of ”˜Get on Your Boots’ and, during the encores, swung from his hanging, illuminated steering-wheel microphone like a gymnast in a biker jacket. “I walked on as Señor Braggadocio,” he cracks later. “It was the first time in 10 weeks that I felt I could do it. And I felt good.”

“We had that feeling ”“ ”˜OK, this is going to work’ ”“ a few days ago in rehearsal,” U2’s guitarist, the Edge, says on the plane, sitting at a table with drummer Larry Mullen Jr and bassist Adam Clayton during the short flight to Nice, France, where the band members all have homes and are taking a weekend off before the next show in Frankfurt. “But that moment when Bono came on and literally started jiving, I went, ”˜OK, he’s back. He’s going for it.’”

Clayton says he knew Bono “could get through tonight. It was the next gig I was worrying about, because the adrenaline takes over.”

Mullen agrees: “Bono wasn’t going to take any chances in Turin. It’s what he’s going to do three weeks down the road.” Actually, the drummer adds, “I preferred him tonight, more than I have on some gigs. There was something about his stance. There was an energy, where he had to draw on something deep.”

Bono has a word for it: “Gratitude,” he declares two days later, sitting in the turretlike sunroom of his oceanside home, a short drive up the Mediterranean coast from Nice. He is dressed in a blue denim shirt and off-white trousers, sipping a late-morning coffee and recalling the day he was wheeled into surgery. “This guy is telling me the chances of getting out intact,” he says. “They’re better than even, really good odds. But I saw Ali” ”“ Bono’s wife ”“ “looking at me like, ”˜Is this going to be a different person I’ll be meeting tomorrow?’

“I think I could have made a limp work,” Bono claims, laughing. “There are a lot bigger problems out there than the ones I was facing. I guess, for me, it would have been the end of a certain era. But I came out of it perfect. And I feel incredibly grateful. To get through that show ”“ that was the look on my face, gratitude.”

On May 11, the day after his 50th birthday, Bono was in training for the North American shows, cycling in New York, when he felt something go wrong. “What had happened was the disk had burst through a ligament and broken into pieces,” he says. Bono didn’t know that yet. He walked around with a cane for a few days before getting an MRI and being told by his German physician, Dr Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, that he needed an operation immediately.

“To discover that you’re not indestructible was a bit of a blow,” Bono concedes, with another laugh. He learned something else during his weeks of recovery in bed. “I learned, on my back, that I need to be a little more restrained.” Even so, between Bono’s release from the hospital and U2’s arrival in Turin, the band spent time working on and recording new material at a studio in Julian Lennon’s home, up the hill from Bono’s house. Bono sang while lying down on a table.

Backstage in Turin, U2’s manager, Paul McGuinness, says Bono’s operation and U2’s delayed summer shows cost the tour about $15 million. Only half of that figure, which includes venue and equipment rentals, and tour-personnel salaries, is covered by insurance. But McGuinness insists the band never considered shutting down the tour for financial reasons or over fears for Bono’s recovery: “We sold over a million tickets for those 16 shows in North America. Those fans’ trust has to be repaid. Touring has also been half of the band’s life. Not to perform would go against the grain.”

On the plane, the Edge contends that the set-list mix in Turin ”“ of deep tracks such as ”˜Miss Sarajevo’ and ”˜In a Little While,’ with the still-unfinished acoustic ballad ”˜North Star’ and the grunge-y rocker ”˜Glastonbury’ ”“ proves the 360Ëš Tour is hitting a new stride. “We’re not promoting anything,” he contends, referring to the early emphasis on last year’s No Line on the Horizon. “These concerts are everything we have to give ”“ our past, our future, where we’re at today.”

“It’s so easy to do your hits ”“ lay it out, and everybody goes yippee,” Mullen says. “We’re not about that. We’re about change and taking chances ”“ and failing. That’s what U2 do ”“ we succeed, and we fail. We never do the middle.”

“I feel like there’s a lot of joy around,” Bono says in his sunroom, swirling his hand in the air. “I don’t know what’s going on, but everyone’s in a great mood. Songs are much more airborne, more light-footed.” There are also a lot of them: four new albums’ worth. In addition to Songs of Ascent ”“ a second set of tracks from the No Line sessions ”“ and Bono and the Edge’s score for the Spider-Man musical (finally set to open on Broadway on December 21), U2 are working on a “rock album,” as Bono puts it, “and a club-sounding album.” He expects U2 will release a new record, drawn from that body of songs, in time for their return to North America next year. “That’s going to be great. Those people are going to have tickets to a whole new show with new songs.

“This could be our heyday,” Bono raves with the same broad smile he had on the plane. “Maybe we just needed a little pause.”


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