U2 has returned to the concert scene after a hiatus of several years, and it is a decidedly different production. The name of the tour may be Elevation, but in 2001, U2 has come down to earth. The production excesses that were staples of Zoo TV and POPMART are gone, replaced by a relatively streamlined arena show that includes elements of video projection, IMAG, and a unique videowall. So, although the theme might be back to basics, the show is anything but.

As with 1992's Zoo TV and 1997's POPMART tour, Elevation melds the ideas of show designer Willie Williams, architect Mark Fisher, curator of visual imagery Catherine Owens, lighting director Bruce Ramus, audio director Joe O'Herlihy, and, possibly most significantly, the band itself. Williams, Fisher, Owens, and Ramus have all been a part of the U2 family for years, and their experiences in the past have given them the opportunity to create a concert experience that is greater than the sum of their individual contributions.

The preproduction of a U2 tour starts well before the band is out of the studio. “In general, the band starts making the album, then Willie gets called in,” explains Owens. “Then he feeds some ideas to me and Mark Fisher.” The nature of the album, in combination with the initial thoughts of the band, led the creative team in a very different direction from past U2 tours. “Because of the album, which is very simple and intimate, I felt, before actually speaking with the band, that this tour really needed to be about the performance, rather than the spectacle,” explains Williams. “And that indeed was very much their intent as well.” While Zoo TV and POPMART were both memorable, groundbreaking concert tours, it was time to try something different. “The clearest idea was that this should be a back-to-basics tour, which explored what Bono described as ‘going through and coming out the other side’ — getting back into basic rock and roll, having gone all the way through the very artistic projects they've done in the past,” explains Fisher.

To some, a stripped-down tour might conjure up visions of PAR cans, a drum riser, and little else. But this is U2. “It's far from being a retreat,” says Williams. “U2, being the people they are, would never be content to just go out and stand on the stage and play some songs.” Nevertheless, they did want to go back to basics, after the over-the-top technology that was a highlight of their last two tours. “The past tours really revolved around showing people things they hadn't seen before on an enormous scale. This time, it's 2001, and now all of that technology and design talent is readily available — if you want a spectacular show, it's something that you buy now,” Williams says.

Another major difference between Elevation and recent outings is that it is primarily an arena tour. Zoo TV and POPMART both played stadiums, and going back indoors was an integral part in going back to basics for the band. “The change from stadiums to arenas was an ideal opportunity to break the cycle of things getting bigger and bigger every time,” Williams notes. “It was also my intention to maximize the contact between the band and the audience. Ever since Zoo TV, U2 has had a B stage out in the house, which is now completely de rigueur in the industry; every band you see now has a B stage.”

U2 is known for pushing the creative boundaries, and rather than just settling, the creative team began exploring new ideas for the design of the stage. “We always have the discussion about playing in the center of the hall and we always throw it out for the same reason — the power of a rock show really depends on being unidirectional to some extent, and anything that diminishes that would be a danger,” admits Williams. “So I assumed that we'd be on one end of the hall, which indeed we are.” Even so, the show is sold in the round. “We are at one end of the arena, but they sell seats all around it, which is a return to the way that the indoor shows were organized in 92, so this isn't the first time they've done shows like this,” says Fisher.

Of course, there's more to the design than just a standard stage sitting at the end of the arena. “We wanted to produce a very simple, sort of elemental stage,” explains Fisher. “But we knew that we wanted to have some kind of symbolism. So, we fished and eventually found some ideas in the work that was being done for the video graphics.” Rather than a multi-dimensional set, the team found their answer in the clean and uncluttered shape of a heart. “We worked out a number of other ideas in order to give the band things to compare it with, but basically we fixed on the heart-shaped stage early on in the project,” Fisher says. Although Elevation is stylistically quite removed from POPMART, part of that tour can be found in the stage itself. “The stage was actually the same shape as the POPMART arch lying down, which is kind of funny,” says Williams.

“The stage was created as a response by the band to the thought that they were trying to get back to a much simpler, more elemental show that their core fans would identify with,” Fisher explains. It is 80' wide by 100' deep and features an open center, which is filled with fans. “Adam [Clayton], the bass player, suggested that we remove the center of the stage and fill it with audience members,” says Williams. The pit holds 300 fans, who queue up for the chance to get up close and personal with the band. “What's lovely is that, for people who want it, it's injected that old-fashioned kind of concert energy into the show,” Williams notes. The main floor is general admission, with tickets that cost less than those in the arena bowl proper. “Because U2 realizes that their audience stretches from 18-year-olds to 55-year-olds, they have such an enormous demographic, and the way we're doing things addresses that,” explains Williams. “If you want a top-price ticket, if you want to come and know you have a reserved seat and a nice view, you can do that. For people who want that real concert energy, there's the floor — and those are the cheapest tickets too — the tickets nearest to the stage are the least expensive.”

The staging of Elevation also limited the number of scenic pieces that could be used. “With a show done in the round, you can't really have any scenery,” Fisher contends, “because what is background scenery for one person is a sightline obstruction to another. Creating a stage with a form that reads in the arena and says something about the intentions of the band is the biggest challenge that Willie and I faced.”

Sightline considerations were one of the critical elements of the stage design. “The adoption of the heart shape was the major breakthrough, and what I brought to it at that point was setting the scale a bit in the arena and getting all of the dimensions right so that it worked on a practical level,” says Fisher. “They've set records in every arena they've been in because the sightlines are so good, which is very nice.” The key to the sightline equation? “The stage is very low — the highest point is 7' high.” The dimensions of the stage bring the band closer to the audience and create a clublike feeling. The stage itself, as with most projects that Fisher creates, was built at Tait Towers in Lititz, PA.

The staging works hand in hand with the video elements of the show. Integrated into the stage is a unique videowall, constructed by Brilliant Stages, which dramatically rises out of the stage to its full height. “We showed Bono a number of alternatives to doing the video, and he kept coming back to this particular idea that he had, because he thought it was stronger than any of our ideas; he was probably right in the end,” says Fisher. The video, which is buried under the stage and lifted through the same sort of electric action that moves the blades of a forklift, is comprised of 13 sections that in total measure 8' high and 64' wide. “You can use one panel at a time, the whole thing, or different combinations, and that's really enhanced the videowall,” says Williams. The videowall, which is a Barco D-Lite provided by XL Video, actually has more LEDs in it than the infamous POPMART wall, which measured 55' × 170'. “The amount of backlight that comes off of that thing is ridiculous,” says Williams.

Another aspect of Elevation's visual equation is projection. “I've been looking at the PIGIs for several years and thinking that their time would come,” Williams notes. “In previous productions, I've worked with film projection, and most recently, with Bryan Adams, I used 70mm film loops, which I ended up making myself. But the problem with projection is that it's never bright enough.”

Enter four PIGI projectors from E/T/C Audiovisuel, with some design modifications, courtesy of Fourth Phase Lighting placed in four corners of the arena. “The PIGIs are so bright; they only have a 7K bulb, but the aperture is 7" square, so an enormous amount of light comes out,” Williams explains. Instead of projecting the PIGIs onto a screen, Williams had a different idea. “I thought this would be an opportunity to use the whole room as a projection surface,” he explains. The gently moving images glide over most of the arena, saturating the room with lines and textures. “Some of the PIGI work is computer-generated, but a majority of it is hand-drawn,” asserts Owens.

From the sultry silhouette of a woman dancing during “Mysterious Ways” to abstract graphics and handwritten words in “With or Without You” to abstract line drawings in “Get Yourself Together,” the various images dominate the production. “A lot of the content is abstract and very textural,” Williams notes. To create the content for the videowall, as well as the PIGI projection, Williams turned to visual artist Owens.

“While we're in production, Willie and I have great thinking sessions,” Owens explains. “Generally, I get my inspiration from the album, how it sounds, as well as from the band. At the same time, I'm out there watching what else is going on in the art world and youth culture and gathering my own feelings.” “A lot of the look was also borrowed from the rave culture,” Williams says. “The overall effect is this abstract, textural feeling.” One of the simplest yet most startling images from the PIGIs is the finale, which features handwritten lyrics. “I wrote out the closing refrain to the last song onto the PIGI film, and it was reversed out, so now it's white on black,” Williams explains. “These words scroll over the audience and run like closing credits, and it's amazing just how emotional that is.”

Owens had a smaller budget than on the two previous tours. “On one hand, it was great that it was going to be minimal, but on the other hand, it meant that the work had to be a lot more defined and, in many ways, more cleverly put together,” she says. “The thing about a big budget is that if you throw enough mud at it, something will stick. Whereas now, every little piece has to work.”

Owens, worked with four video artists — three from England and one from America — and stayed close to the minimalist theme. “Slick production was not going to have a place in anything, so consequently, everything was handmade — very rough and ready in its origin, and then we'd make it technologically work in post-production,” she says. Although the work is done by hand, it's far from graffiti-like. “We did a lot of the work by hand, straight onto the film, and that was really wonderful and exciting,” she notes. “It wasn't random or sloppy, it's quite lovely linear work, very much related to the making of a pure image and less related to graphic design.”

For the videowall artwork, Owens had the same challenge as Fisher — creating dimensions that worked visually. “The videowall was really wonderful, because it was a completely mad, almost unworkable scale,” she notes. “There was a lot of re-aspecting of the images, and that was technologically fascinating. We were sitting in a studio in London trying to work out how on earth we were going to make images look like they weren't squashed.”

A significant amount of the videowall artwork was also done onsite, during rehearsals. “We really lucked out big time — Media 100 in London gave us an onsite editing suite for rehearsals, so we used the videowall as our monitor, had our fantastic Apple G3 titanium laptop, and literally sat there creating images,” she explains. “Bono would say at lunchtime ‘Catherine, I think I really want this,’ so we'd make it up in the afternoon and have it for rehearsals.”

U2 is known for making political statements, and one of their strongest comments is made during a film that runs on the videowall. “It's a film that proceeds the song ‘Bullet in the Blue Sky,’ which was written about the Contras in El Salvador, but it's had several lives since then,” says Williams. “Now it seems to really bear relevance to the whole gun-control issue, and what was so promising now seems to be in danger.” The band wanted to comment on the issue, so Owens and onsite editor Mark Logue created a video piece that precedes the song, concerning a speech from NRA president Charlton Heston. “It certainly avoids lecturing, but it's pretty clear where they stand,” notes Williams.

Working with the videowall and the projection is the lighting rig, which follows the “forward to basics” theme. The truss configuration is deceptively simple — four straight trusses with a high trim that varies from 50' to 12' in height, as well as a circle truss that hangs over the pit of the stage. The automated lighting package can be described in two words: Vari*Lite 2416s. There are 54 of them, and their colors work in harmony with the videowall. The conventional lighting package featured fresnels at one point, until they were replaced by eight custom fixtures comprised of DWE lamps Williams designed on a napkin. “I wasn't getting much use out of the fresnels, and although they're a great look, it's the wrong show for them,” he explains. To complete the rig, Williams and Ramus turned to a cornucopia of specials, including a custom-made ripple drum from Light and Sound Design, Lowel Omni and Tota lights, and a wide variety of strobes.

The final piece of the visual equation is a clever spin on a concert cliche. “One thing that's just driving me insane is that every rock show you go and see now has big video screens on either side running something that looks like an HBO special,” laments Williams. “Now, every band is playing in front of a video screen with meaningless images on it. Every singer has a mate with a DV cam, and all the same ideas come up over and over again.” Not only that, but, on another level, the video can focus audience attention away from the stage as well as the talent. “What occurred to me was that the audience must feel, on some level, that the most interesting thing that's happening in the building at that moment will be on the screen,” Williams adds. The easiest solution would be to simply eliminate the IMAG, but “because a lot of the indoor venues are really big, and the tickets are expensive, it was deemed necessary to have some sort of video reinforcement,” Williams says.

Rather than traditional IMAG, another idea came into play, one that Williams says he got “after years of standing behind video directors and engineers, seeing what they were seeing. They have their little engineering rack with four black-and-white camera shots. It always amused me that you could have these really fascinating pictures on the monitors and then spend an awful lot of time and money cutting it up into something less interesting.” The person cutting up the monitor shots is the director, the visual mediator of the performance. “All the pictures you see are mediated through another person; I wanted to take that person out of the equation,” Williams concludes.

So they did. Elevation features IMAG without a director. “There are four video screens above the stage and four long-lens cameras in the house — each camera picks up one of the band members and has a direct feed to one of the screens,” he notes. “I talk to the camera operators and set up the shows on the engineering monitors and then we present them all to the audience raw.” Instead of relying on the vision of the director, the IMAG on Elevation is surveillance-esque, presenting the band in black and white rather than color. “With regular IMAG, there's always this terrible fear of missing things, whereas with these pictures, because they're there all the time and the same band member stays on the same screen all night, you don't feel like you're missing anything if you look away,” he adds. Audience members can check out the IMAG when they want to see something close up, but the rest of the time, they can watch the show unencumbered by a video director's vision. “I think it's both intellectually and artistically a very strong idea and will probably be one of the most influential things to come out of this tour,” Fisher says. The audiences also seem to be enjoying the “unmediated IMAG.” “It was a very hard sell in some ways to management and promoters,” Williams says. “They were skeptical at first, but when you see it, it's one of those ideas that is a complete no-brainer.”

Moving to the audio aspects of the show, the band has continued its long relationship with Clair Brothers Audio Inc., also of Lititz, PA, and is currently out with the I-4/I-4 B (bass) Line Array System. “The reason we're with Clair Brothers is because they have the best sound system available worldwide,” says O'Herlihy. “The I-4/I-4B is the latest technology available for the type of arena tour we're doing.” Crest 10004 amps power the I-4s, while the I-4Bs work in tandem with QSC 9.0 amps. O'Herlihy mixes the show on a Midas XL4 fully fitted automated recall console and uses a Yamaha O2R to take care of some of the overflow inputs. Monitor engineers Don Garber and Dave Skaff mix on two ATI Paragon monitor consoles, and the band uses a combination of in-ear monitors from Future Sonics, as well as several Clair AM wedges and the newer Series II wedges.

U2 concluded the North American leg of the Elevation tour in July, then took it to Europe, where they'll be until the end of August. There is also talk that the band may return to selected US cities this fall.

All photos: © Lewis Lee

U2 Elevation Tour 2001 Credits
(partial)

Show designer: Willie Williams
Architect: Mark Fisher
Tour production manager: Jake Berry
U2 production manager: Steve Iredale
Stage manager: Rocko Reedy
Audio director: Joe O'Herlihy
Lighting director: Bruce Ramus
Production assistants: David Herbert, Helen Campbell

Crew chief and drum tech: Sam O'Sullivan
Guitar techs: Dallas Schoo, Stuart Morgan
Tour tech: Rab McAllister
Bono tech: Dave Rouze

Style consultant/head of wardrobe: Sharon Blankson
Wardrobe assistants: Karen Nicholson, Fintan Fitzgerald
Head rigger: Bart Durbin
Rigger: Joe Favor
Carpenter/Bono stage assistant: Adam “AJ” Rankin
Carpenters: Alan “Woody” Doyle, Seth Goldstein, Flory Turner, & Bob Madison

Lighting

Lighting crew chief: Garry Chamberlain
Lighting techs: Craig Hancock, Russell “Bits” Lyons, Mark Hitchcock, & Raffaele Buono
Automated lighting tech: Adam Finer
PIGI effects projectionist: Brian Beasley
PIGI programmer: Myron Moore

Video crew chief/lead projection: Clarke Anderson
VT op/camera engineer: Stefaan Desmedt
Lead LED screen tech: Olivier Clybouw
Projectionist/LED tech: Stefaan Vanbesien
Head of cameras: Mark O'Herlihy

Audio

Audio technician/crew chief: Joe Ravitch
Audio monitors: Dave Skaff, Don Garber
Audio technicians: Tom Ford, Niall Slevin, & Jason Kirschnick

Projection & Screen Visuals

Video director: Willie Williams
Creator of screen imagery: Catherine Owens
Producer: Maria Manton

Artists: Noah Clarke, Joe King, Mark Logue, Marcus Lyall, John Maybury, Catherine Owens, Mark Pellington, Adam Smith, Jennifer Steinkamp, Willie Williams, & Michelle Yu
WYSIWYG programming: Tom Thompson

Suppliers (partial)

Radios: AAA Communications; Ron Martinelli
Trucking/Europe: Atkinson & Sanders; Shoe Sanders
Set construction: Brilliant Stages; Tony Bowern, Charlie Kail

Audio: Clair Bros Audio Inc.; Greg Hall, Troy Clair
Audio Rent AG; Jurg Huegin

Carpentry: Joseph Haggerty & Sons, Inc.
UK & US lighting supplier: Light & Sound
Design; John Lobel
Media 100 digital media delivery systems: Prelite Studios
PIGI effects projection: Fourth Phase, NY and London; Anne Johnston
Set construction: Tait Towers; Michael Tait, Winky Fairorth
Vari*Lites supplier: Vari-Lite Production Services
Video supplier: XL Video/Nocturne Europe; Chris Mounsor
Variolift motors: Show Distribution