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U2: From joshua trees to palm trees

You can’t blame U2’s concert promoter for wondering just how big the band’s Vertigo world tour could have been if it had simply kept on playing.

After all, not one ticket went unsold for the 131 shows on the trek, which began March 28, 2005, in San Diego and wrapped
December 9 in front of 47,000 fans at Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium.

Having been on the road in fits and starts since March
2005, U2 was clearly in a celebratory mood in Hawaii, as Bono danced onstage with a woman from the crowd during “Mysterious

Ways” and even pulled a lucky guy out of the audience to play piano with the band during “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”

Whether waving the American flag high above his head amid opener “City of Blinding Lights” or writhing on the stage blindfolded for “Bullet the Blue Sky,” the frontman was holding nothing back.

When all was said and done, Vertigo clocked in as the second-highest grossing tour of all time: $389 million from an astonishing audience of 4,619,021, second only to the Rolling Stones’ concurrent A Bigger Bang trek, which may continue into
2007, and has grossed more.

“I sometimes try and visualize, what would be the universe?” promoter Arthur Fogel told Billboard. “In other words, what if you could just play and play and play? We sold over four-and-a-half million tickets on this tour, but we still underplayed basically everywhere we’ve gone.”

Vertigo visited arenas in North America through late May
2005, then played stadiums in Europe throughout that summer. In the fall, it was back to North America for a run that included six shows at Toronto’s Air Canada Center and six at New York’s
Madison Square Garden.

February and March took U2 to South America, which was originally to be followed by dates in Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Those shows, however, were postponed until the fall due to a serious illness that struck within the immediate family of a band member. Details have never been publicly disclosed.

Getting Vertigo back on track was the final hurdle for
Fogel. He and U2 manager Paul McGuinness say they’re in contact all the time, even a year before the first fan has filed into a venue.

“As the record develops, the production develops,”
McGuinness said. “And depending on when the record is finished, we have an imaginary start date. That’s subject to change, but the thinking about the production is always simultaneous with the making of the album.”

The Vertigo stage set featured an ellipse-shaped extension that allowed band members to travel far into the general-admission crowd on the floor. It required 30 semi trucks to get from place to place, according to stage manager
Rocko Reedy. On a good day, it took two-and-a-half hours to assemble, but that duration could nearly double depending on weather and venue configurations. After being loaded post-show onto the trucks, the stage was packed onto three 747s to travel to the next venue.

Early in the tour, U2 performed in front of seven see-through LED curtains, onto which images and patterns were projected. Later, a giant, super high-tech LED screen was used instead to form the backdrop.

“All the stuff we use is always serial number 001,” Reedy said. “The first time they create this type of technology, it’s
U2 that uses it. Then everybody else under the sun goes out and gets it, so we just have to come up with something new.”

That said, Vertigo has not been without its share of drama.

The tour got off to a rocky start after a disastrous presale for paid members of u2.com in January 2005, when demand far exceeded the ticket allotment, prompting shut-out fans to blast management and even band members themselves on Internet forums.

“The demand was artificially stimulated because, quite honestly, a lot of ticket scalpers had joined u2.com planning to trade the tickets,” McGuinness said. “It was clear very early those tickets would have a higher resale value than face value. We got caught by that, and we certainly underestimated the demand that would arise through the fan club. We did the best we could to meet it. But we’ll be a little more careful next time.”

Then, in the wake of the Asia-Pacific postponements, Fogel spent months dealing with insurance issues. “That process took a very long time and was very difficult in complex, but ultimately resulted favorably,” he says. “That probably was a much greater challenge than the actual logistics of bringing the production and personnel back together.

“We had a few venue issues (rescheduling) in Japan, because originally we were playing outdoors at Yokohama Stadium,” he added. “Given we were now in early December, the weather is such that we had to then look to go indoors. So, we had to basically refund 60,000 tickets and then resell for three shows at an arena.”

But, to the surprise of nobody, the fans were still right there waiting to attend the makeup dates. “In Australia, even though we were postponing the shows by six months or so, almost no customers asked for a refund,” McGuinness said. And indeed, the time off allowed U2 to rejigger the tour set list, as well as record “The Saints Are Coming” and the new song “Window in the Skies” with producer Rick Rubin. Both were released on the compilation “U218 Singles” in November.

While it may have been tempting to entertain adding still more shows to the itinerary after the fall leg, McGuinness said this was “a logical point to stop. We’re obviously aware we could go on and on and on, but selling out (venues) is actually more important to us than the gross.”

So where does the U2 go from here? The first destination is the recording studio, sometime in 2007, with an eye on releasing a new album by the end of the year. McGuinness predicted the next tour would then begin in 2008.

“All I can say is it will be completely different the next time, but it will be big,” he said. “I think our audience expects very big productions. We’ve become good at doing that, and I think it is part of U2’s reputation.” The band may even experiment with commercially releasing select concerts as downloads shortly after their completion. “That’s something we’re exploring,” McGuinness acknowledged. “In the future there will be more what we call ‘band-to-fan activity.”

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