Music in a nutshell

I once read in a physics textbook that if an atom were to be magnified to the size of London’s Wembley Stadium, the nucleus at the centre would be about as big as a hazelnut.

Well screw that, because I can think of much better uses for Wembley Stadium. Besides the obvious — football — it is of course an ideal venue for rock concerts and last Friday night U2 showed exactly how it should be done. From my high and distant vantage point they stood like stick-men on the stage, but still managed to amplify themselves to fill the stadium. And I’m not just talking about the sound level.

It’s over 20 years since I last saw the band but, spurred by the blog post I wrote when their new album came out in March, I bought tickets for last Friday’s concert. Recklessly, I got tickets for myself and my children, whom I’d exposed — not altogether unwillingly — to some of U2’s back catalogue. I’d not been to a rock concert of any kind since the children came along, so I knew this was going to be different.

Elbow Wembley
Elbow filling Wembley

But I needn’t have worried. For us the show kicked off with the support act, Elbow, whose enchanting, pained melodies from ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ I admire very much. They put in a great performance, all the more impressive since it was to a half-filled stadium on a light summer evening. Suddenly I remembered: there is something different about having the music pounding through your whole body.

And then, with the light dimming and smoke starting to emanate from the gigantic spiderous stage in the middle of the stadium, a thunderous roar greeted U2 who launched straight into the pulsating, clanging ‘Breathe’ from the new album.

U2 Wembely - start
U2 take over

The years fell away – at least episodically. I was repeatedly reminded of my parental status as my youngest, who’s not so familiar with the band (and initially confused them with Elbow), kept asking — by bellowing in my ear at the top of her voice — “What’s this song called?”

In front of us was another father with his two children. He was clearly much more ‘into it’ than me because he kept jumping to his feet and punching the air. Then he would try to get his kids to do the same. Part of me was thinking ‘Good on you, mate’, but I could also hear a voice in my head congratulating me on not being such a dreadful embarrassment.

But there were moments. Bono has more or less given up his sermonizing so there were almost no gaps between tracks. The show was incredibly slick and technically stunning. U2 turned the stadium into a dazzling cauldron of sound that thrummed in your rib-cage and swept you away.

I’ve said it before — I love the music — but I’d forgotten how special it was to hear it live.

U2 Wembly - for Iran
Tribute to the Iranian demonstrators

At times, the show was moving in other ways. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, written for the Troubles in Northern Ireland was given new meaning as the stage was flooded with green and the video screen filled with images from the recent demonstrations in Iran. The band then dedicated ‘Walk on’ to Aung San Suu Kyi, sentenced to a further 18 months house arrest in Burma only this week.

And at the end, just before the first encore, there was the face of Desmond Tutu talking from the giant video screen, reminding us of the lives that had been saved by the nurses, doctors and scientists who had worked so hard to relieve the misery of AIDS and malaria in Africa.

Science and music – it doesn’t get much better than that. Even for an aged has-been like myself.

U2 Wembley - late
U2 lighting up the stadium

Postscript: It has emerged from subsequent discussions that my kids were, shall we say, somewhat amused by my asynchronous clapping along. Fortunately, they couldn’t hear my singing.

Postscript 2: I haven’t forgotten my review of Huxley – it’s still gestating!

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39 Responses to Music in a nutshell

  1. Richard Wintle says:

    Good to see that the giant glass spider from the Bowie tour has found a new home. 😉
    I just heard on the radio that the U2 concert at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, which I thoroughly enjoyed, was in 1992. Shudder.
    Sounds like fun. Glad you enjoyed it, out there in the d-orbitals of Wembley.

  2. Caryn Shechtman says:

    Sounds like good fun, Stephen. I am somewhat jealous, as U2 concerts in my area always sell out before I can get tickets. I am currently 0 for 2 in the New York area. Soon my day will come. I hope it will be good as yours was.

  3. Cath Ennis says:

    I’m seeing them in October and I can’t wait. It’s been great to get a preview from this post and from various British friends on Facebook! I’m dragging my husband along too, who thinks they have some decent songs but is far from being a fan. He says he’d like to see them live though. We’ll be on the main floor of the stadium, but probably not as close to the front as the last time I saw them! And I think we’re getting the Black Eyed Peas as support, which should be good.

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Richard – ‘d-orbitals’. Ha – I like that – keep up the science content!
    Sorry to hear it’s so hard to get tickets in NY Caryn. I think if you join the fan club, you might get early notice of upcoming concerts but I guess it’ll be a few years before they’re back in the city.
    Hope your hubbie enjoys it Cath – and that he’s more embarrassment-proof than my kids!

  5. Sara Fletcher says:

    I went to see U2 at Wembley more years ago than I like to think, I’d love to see them again!

  6. Mike Fowler says:

    bq. still managed to amplify themselves to fill the stadium.
    I’m just back from a week in the wilderness, where glorius isolation allowed me to be whistled to sleep each night by tinitus brought on from years of playing and listening to music that was too loud for correct aural health.
    This post reminded me of wonderful live gigs I’ve been at over the years (including U2 at sellic park during the Achtung Baby tour, I think). I wouldn’t give up the tinitus for the world!
    As Bill Oddie possibly once said, “Rock the duck on”.

  7. Richard Wintle says:

    @Stephen – I’m here all week.
    @Caryn – getting tickets to anything is dire in Toronto. So dire, in fact, that the local rock station is giving away U2 tickets – for the Chicago show.

  8. Stephen Curry says:

    Sorry to hear getting tickets is such a problem for some. I guess we are spoiled in London but all I had to do was log in to Ticketmaster at 9 am on the day they went on sale and pay their exhorbitant fees…

  9. Stephen Curry says:

    Don’t you just love the internet? This video from the concedrt I saw doesn’t come close to doing justice to the sheer volume of sound but there is something

  10. Austin Elliott says:

    Hmmm. Can I claim “ancient primacy” as I saw the band live (the only time) in October 1981 (sic) in Bristol? The only things I really remember were that Bono was (i) quite short (ii) wore very high cuban heels and (iii) could twirl the mike stand like Rod Stewart. Oh, and that The Edge was a hell of a guitar player, even back then.

  11. Stephen Curry says:

    Sorry Austin – beat you by a couple of months
    I do remember the penchant for cuban heels though.

  12. Austin Elliott says:

    Corking picture Stephen – that is just how I remembered the short one looking a few months later.
    I had completely forgotten, though, that The Edge once had hair. Of course, as a rather inept guitarist myself I was probably looking intently at his fingers.

  13. Graham Steel says:

    Ladies and Gentlemen.
    Via the wonders of Royal Mail U2’s Official YouTube Channel, I bring you the archived verison of their show yesterday livestreamed in it’s entirety from the Pasadena Rose Bowl in California. 2 hours, 20 mins worth. Three Men & A Achtung Baby….

  14. Stephen Curry says:

    Ha – thanks for that Graham. I had heard about it but not had a chance to check out the video. Looks pretty good, though I doubt I will sit through all 2 hr 20 min of it. Not quite the same thing as being there!
    And, much as I love U2, I did enjoy this tweet from comedian Peter Serafinowicz earlier today… 😉

  15. Darren Saunders says:

    I still think this was the best one I’ve seen
    51hrs and counting til Vancouver show 🙂

  16. Stephen Curry says:

    Cheers Darren – I didn’t know of the significance of that particular concert. I missed the Zoo TV tour (excuse: young baby) even though Achtung Baby remains one of my favourites – a real breakthrough for the band.
    Enjoy the show on Wednesday (if I’ve got my sums right)!

  17. Darren Saunders says:

    That Zoo TV concert (aka Zoomerang in Aust) completely changed the way I thought about concerts (and a few other things). Think total and utter sensory overload. The only other one I’ve seen that comes close is Radiohead (both times).

  18. Cath Ennis says:

    50 hours!

  19. Richard Wintle says:

    Probably mentioned this before, but I also saw the ZooTV tour (in Toronto). It was at Exhibition Stadium, one of the concerts during the Royal Canadian Exhibition (“The Ex”)… so in the background were a ferris wheel, and roller coasters. Bono made some comment about how it was the most “Zoo” place they’d played. Great concert, even though the satellite TV didn’t work and the opening acts completely sucked.

  20. Stephen Curry says:

    You going too, Cath?
    What about you Richard?

  21. Cath Ennis says:

    Oh yeah, I’ve been looking forward to tomorrow night for months! I’m making my husband go, too – he’s not much of a fan, but was persuaded to see them live. A big group of our friends are going, too, which helped to convince him – we’re all in different sections of the stadium, but will try to meet up before, during and after as much as we can!
    My Dad was not impressed by the news when I talked to him on Sunday. His exact words were “that prat Bono needs to learn that he’s not some international statesman, he’s just a singer from Dublin”.

  22. Stephen Curry says:

    Ha – it’s easy to see how people would form that opinion. Bono can certainly be grating but it’s hard to dispute his effectiveness on the international stage.
    Have a great time!

  23. Cath Ennis says:

    What a great show! Well worth the walk in the rain in both directions.

    and tell me when the spaceship lands, ‘cos all this has just got to mean something

    I hate to say it, but those boys are getting a wee bit too old for extreme close-ups!

  24. Richard Wintle says:

    Hm. Looks as though you got pretty close to the old prat. 😉
    Stephen – no, not me… and anyway that concert Cath saw was about 3,350 km from where I live. 🙂

  25. Cath Ennis says:

    Not as close as in Glasgow, but on the plus side I have no bruises and I can hear out of both ears!
    The set seemed to only just barely fit inside the air-supported roof of BC Place:

    I think my husband (as a set builder himself) was more impressed by the stage set-up than with the concert, to be honest! He did injure his back last week, which made standing for 4 hours very painful for him…

  26. Stephen Curry says:

    Great pictures Cath – I caught some of your updates on Twitter. Glad your hubby was at least able to enjoy the architecture of the stage. I can’t manage 4 hrs upright these days, even without a back injury.

  27. Cath Ennis says:

    Thanks! I have some short snippets of video, too, but I spoiled them rather by bopping the camera up and down in time to the music.

  28. Darren Saunders says:

    Great concert, good setlist (inc Unforgettable Fire, nice), truly stunning set and video, sound was about as good as could be expected in that cavernous hole.
    It’s not every day you get to sing Happy Birthday to Bill Gates either, very bizarre moment!

  29. Cath Ennis says:

    Yes, that was rather strange, wasn’t it?!
    The acoustics in that place really aren’t very good. Apparently they’ve improved, though. My husband reeled off a very impressive list of other bands he’s seen in the same venue – the Stones, Pink Floyd, and the Who among others – and said that they seem to have baffled some of the echo since those days! We found that things improved as we got more central – we watched the Black Eyed Peas from closer to the stage but off to one side, and their sound was awful. For the main gig we ended up very close to the sound booth, which I think was a good call. Apparently it sounded pretty good up in the back few rows, where all our friends were!

  30. Darren Saunders says:

    I found the same thing, we must have been standing right next to each other near the sound desk!

  31. Darren Saunders says:

    In a futile attempt to lend some form of scientific validity to this thread, check out the title of this paper…
    You too can play with an edge
    I love it!

  32. Cath Ennis says:

    Nice one!
    Oh, and there was science at the concert – Bono hauled a sign onto the stage from the crowd, made by researchers who were studying HIV!
    Too bad we didn’t co-ordinate better on our locations – next time, eh?!

  33. Cath Ennis says:

    p.s. the senior author’s name is an anagram of “Clear He’s Bono”.
    I’ve already told Darren this, but I’m rather proud of myself and am now sharing with the internet.

  34. Stephen Curry says:

    Nice find Darren – and clever anagraming Cath. Though the author list is not quite as amusing as on the one you pointed out earlier on Twitter…

  35. Cath Ennis says:

    I’m glad it’s not just me who’s amused by that abstract!

  36. Richard Wintle says:

    Darren – excellent link. I think you may have found me my next F1000 review. 🙂
    Cath – excellent photo!
    Regarding cavernous holes, try the Rogers Centre (a.k.a. Skydome) sometime… they used to do this thing where they’d use half the stadium and hang an enormous kind of drape down behind the stage, called the “Skytent”. It was marginally better than the whole stadium. Saw Aerosmith there, with tent, which was ok, and the Stones in the whole stadium, which wasn’t.
    Even worse, possibly, was old Exhibition Stadium (now flattened), where I saw U2, Pink Floyd and The Who. All the cavernous qualities, with the added problem of being open so most of the sound escaped upwards. The U2 show was ok as I was on the floor in the middle – for the others I was in the stands (The Who show, about 30 feet in front of a concrete wall near the back of the stadium – holy slap-back echo batman!). Dismal, dismal venues both.

  37. Darren Saunders says:

    Yeah, it’s cool stuff Richard. Facing an oncoming tsunami of tumour genomics data, I’ve been trying to figure out HT ways to rapidly ID the most interesting mutations and assign functional relevance. This kind of approach could be a useful addition to the toolkit.

  38. Erica Lovelace says:

    Cath, I know this is >6mos after you posted, but I just wanted to say that I was the HIV research scientist who made the sign, which Bono took up on stage. …Please let me know if you’re going to the Seattle concert next month & if you’ll be lining up early! 🙂

  39. Cath Ennis says:

    Oh, cool! Nice work, I really enjoyed that moment.
    I’m not going to Seattle, in fact I didn’t even know they were playing! Have fun though!
    (and thank you Stephen for alerting me to this comment!)

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