Friday, November 26, 2010

U2 and public lament for Pike River Miners

U2 played in Auckland last night, Thursday 25 November. (For my review of the US leg of the 360 degree tour, go here). It was also a day of national mourning for the loss of life at the Pike River mine, with flags flying at half mast, with multiple church services and bells tolling in memory. (For more of an overveiw of coverage go here)

What would you do if you were a visitor, being paid (loads of) money to entertain the masses on what turns out to be a day of national mourning?

Well, here is the NZ Herald summary of what they did:

U2’s Bono said the band felt privileged to be here especially at a time when hearts were aching and so raw.

Struggling for the right words to convey his condolences for the people of Greymouth, he said: “People deal with grief in all sorts of ways. In Ireland, we sing”.

Bono then launched into “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

The names of the 29 mining victims scrolled across the screen as the band played “One Tree Hill”, a song penned for New Zealander Greg Carroll who was the band’s roadie.

I wasn’t there (my turn Wednesday in Melbourne), and I’d love to hear from those who were at the concert as to how this came across, and what else – visuals, lighting, performance – were added in (You can’t reduce a U2 show to just lyrics and words on a screen).

But some quick comments from the perspective of lament
– Bono’s introduction, with a spare, almost poetic, use of words
– the acknowledgement of multiple ways to grieve
– the link to one’s own tradition “In Ireland, we sign”
– the use of a song to allow people time to breathe
– the naming of names, helping people face reality

U2 and public lament is nothing new. Here is what I wrote in regard to their playing in New York so soon after 9/11. (It is part of a chapter in a book on U2 due for publication next year).

a live concert, and most particularly, a U2 concert, is one of few “public space experience” left in our culture. (Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses, 29.) This is especially so in relation to the 3rd leg of the Elevation Tour, which was played immediately following 9/11 and the Slane Castle concert. Parra noted: “Before the start of leg three, fans had speculated whether U2 would be playing Bullet the Blue Sky again in post- 9/11 America.” (Parra, U2 Live, 259) Can the world-changing events of 9/11 change a song?

While “Bullet the Blue Sky” did not appear in the first concert at South Bend, Indiana, from then on, “things [were to] return to a more familiar order. Bullet is back in the set, but the images of guns and war are no longer projected on the screens. Instead there are more abstract pictures, distortion and ‘snow’.”(Parra, U2 Live, 259) With specific reference to this notion of “communal memory”, Parra summarized this leg of the tour: “What their audience seem to want right now is a sense of community, of togetherness, which is something the band have always been good at delivering – and has been at the core of the Elevation Tour since its conception.” (Parra, U2 Live, 258) With careful attention to sampling, in this case video sampling, a song can change and a public space can be humanized.

U2 took incredible live performance risks on this leg, Again we see the use of samples – including scrolling the names of those killed in 9/11 on video screens and inviting on stage New York firemen. Again we see the use of visual and theatrical samples in the creation of public space through the humanizing of communal memory.

As the audience remembers and weeps, the band is allowing, as Bono sought in the initial writing of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” a “shouting at God …. Abandonment and displacement … Honesty, even to the point of anger.” (Bono, Selections from the Book of Psalms)

In sum, the use of sampling is essential in allowing a world to change a song. In so doing, a complex range of factors are being negotiated. It is the creative genius of U2 that allows them not just to perform, but to re-perform, and in a way that allows communal memory to be created, a spiritual exchange to occur, as U2 “go for the heart, without preaching.”

Many similarities between the way U2 publicly process lament in the Elevation tour and now in 2010 after the Pike River Mines. The use of names, the taking of risks, the willingness to lament in public space and engage communal memory.

And for folk trying to get their head (and heart) around the linkages between U2, lament and the song One Tree Hill (which was central to last night) here is another excerpt which I wrote last year: (more…)

Posted by steve at 10:13 AM