Thursday, August 4, 2011

We Found What We Were Looking For. Mostly.

From the moment U2 began their set here in Moncton's Magnetic Hill with the opening guitar shrill of "Even Better Than the Real Thing", I knew we were in for a different show than what we witnessed on the U2 360 Blu Ray we bought a few weeks ago.  The rumors were right, they constantly change the show AND the set list.  Which is nice, because I got to hear a lot of songs that I completely didn't expect and wished for.  I wished they would play something from Zooropa, probably my favorite U2 disc, and I got not just one, but two tracks from that album, "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" and "Zooropa".  The latter being the big shock, not expecting that at all.  As soon as I recognized the opening, I freaked.  My beloved Zooropa album was going to be represented by a song I never expected them to ever play again, much less here in Moncton.  There were so many others I was taken aback by, albeit pleasantly, like "Miss Sarajevo", one of the most touching and emotional U2 songs EVER.  A lot of people don't quite get that song, but I do.  I dived into it one day, seeking translation for Pavarotti's part in the song, and then the meaning of it swept into my heart.  Miss Sarajevo, a pageant winner in the midst of bloody civil war going on in Bosnia... is there a time to recognize such beauty during a monumental point of violent history in any country?  Then Pavarotti sings about love.  And it made me think... love conquers everything, including war.  Where love exists, war perishes.  Genious.

"Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me".  Wow, just didn't see that coming!  I'm telling you, they threw curve ball after curve ball at my expectations and I loved every single delightful pitch.  Lastly, the finisher of the night, "40" (paraphrasing Psalm 40, for the uninitiated)... I often said to my wife leading up to the concert how much I would love for them to leave the stage after Larry Mullen's climactic beats at the end of that song, knowing that it's not going to happen.  BUT... it did.  A perfect ending to a perfect show.  Almost, anyway... I would have loved to have heard "All I Want Is You" and "Electrical Storm".  But I still wound up with a whole lot more than I expected.  Three hours, some intimate banter from the brilliant Bono, a stage show unlike any other in the history of music and probably none that will ever equal it, and my lovely family at my side.  Even a pair of F-16 fighters flying around the site for over half an hour before U2 came on, putting on a show that brought out the squealing little kid in me.  I must have looked like a 7 year old stuck in a 45 year old's body.  I danced in place in the bleachers, sung and hollered, pumped my fist, just let loose.  It was the release that I needed.  It literally turned me around from the down-in-the-dumps sadsack to a happy-to-be-alive man, friend, father and husband again.  This was the prescription I needed.

Now, not everything was all roses, though.  Let's go back to the beginning.

The day was a washout.  It poured rain out all afternoon, and it looked like this was going to be more difficult to enjoy than it should be.  The three of us waited here at the house for as long as we could, trying to wish away the rain, as the forecasts were indeed saying it should stop by the end of the afternoon.  We bought into the 'Park and Ride' plan that was pitched by the promoters, where you buy a $10 bracelet, park the car at the coliseum parking lot, board a bus and have it take you to the concert site, and you would get back on the bus after the show and it would bring you back.  The buses, we were told, would get to leave the site first.  Sounds like a plan to us.  I was wary of the $30 charges to park the car someplace near the site and having to deal with traffic.  The Casino was offering parking spots for that much, redeemable after the show for a voucher for the same price to play their games inside.  No thanks.

Anyway, we got to the coliseum, parked the car and boarded a bus quite quickly, with no hassles whatsoever.  Although we got to ride on a school bus.  Those things are so cramped, I now feel sorry for the kids that have to travel in them every school day.  It's like something the military should have to endure.  Or not even.  But, we got to the concert site in pretty good time, and we were let off at Mountain Road just by the Magnetic Hill entrance.  Alexandra wasted absolutely no time in slipping on the mud and wiping out, getting her leggings muddy.  Not real bad though, although she had to adjust to that slimy feeling until it dried up a bit.  So we began our walk to the concert site, past the zoo, over the hills and seemingly far away.  From the bus to the site, it had to have been nearly an hour for sure.  But the weather held up, no one needed rain gear from that point on, and the crowd walking there was all very friendly and pumped to see the show.  We watched as we got closer the giant U2 'Claw' that was set up in the distance, everyone peering at it in awe as if the aliens had arrived, which is what it looked like anyway.  It looked like half of Star Trek's Deep Space Nine space station had separated in half and landed.  Everyone, us included, took pictures of the behemoth that was planted adjacent to the Papal Site.  Along the way, the path was muddy at times, which was to be expected.  Not only did it rain like crazy earlier, but that's pretty well how the whole summer has been around here.  It's like spring got held over.

We arrived at the gates just outside the concert site, 1 litre bottles of water in hand, and had our tickets scanned to get in.  From there, we might as well have gotten a jet ski to get to the venue.  We had to trek across the grass and mud for at least another 1/2 km until we got to some solid ground, so our shoes were completely soaked after the first few steps in.  Some kind of rubber track, or even spread gravel, would have alleviated the situation.  But it appeared that the planners didn't entertain the idea that it might rain, despite the fact that it's been virtually monsoon season all summer up to this point.  We laughed and joked about it, and tried to make light of it as best we could.  We didn't want anything to dampen our enthusiasm, and nothing did.  Roll with the punches and get back up.

Once we got to where there was more solid ground, we stood in awe of the Claw, and the enormous bleachers that surrounded it.  We walked about the place first, exploring the phenomenally limited number of concession stands and vendors, and got a hot dog, each one $5.  Not too bad.  I heard nightmare stories about prices, and those were big hot dogs.  There was a stand with merchandise that we each got something from.  Alexandra got her keychain to add to her collection, I got a t-shirt and both of the ladies got a hoodie.  The prices for the stuff were average, maybe a little less, except for the shirt which was $40.  But this is a once in a lifetime event.  We proceeded to our seats in the grandstands.

We were pretty high up, enough to make you a bit queasy if you had issues with heights.  But we were offered a breathtaking view of the stage from our vantage point, as were anyone lucky enough to have a reserved seat.  Just after 6pm, opening band Carney from L.A. took the stage.  We learned quickly that we were indeed seating 'behind' the stage, as no one except U2 themselves actually came to face us.  That was remedied somewhat by the giant retractable cone-like screen hung from the center of the Claw.  Carney was okay.  It's a talented group of young men on their journey to better, more successful days, I'm sure, should they stick together and weather the storms ahead of them, like any band that has to endure trials by fire.  They were quite noisy at times though.  I know I sound old saying that.  But the singer didn't need to scream as much as he did (scream for effect, and it'll be...well...effective, not at every friggin' turn of a song).  They had a pretty long set.  Maybe too long.  Out of five stars, I'd give them two.

A bit of an intermission came before Arcade Fire did their bit to entertain.  Last time we saw them was in Montreal in '05 for U2's Vertigo Tour, itself the highest grossing tour ever up to that point.  We didn't know what to expect from them then, and were so pleasantly surprised that we got their CD after the show.  This time, it was basically more of the same, which is to say extremely good.  This is a band... or maybe it's more accurate to call them a group of people... that will do whatever it takes to entertain you, play any instrument, even make an instrument out of anything (the bottom of a clothes iron was used for percussion at one point).  I don't know the members by name, but they are familiar to me.  Last time I loved watching the girl who was the violin player, this time I had my eye on the sensual babe in the gold dress.  She danced and sang and played (some kind of crank instrument, percussion and drums), and had a ball doing it.  The way she moves is mesmerizing.  The whole group was phenomenal to see and hear, and we danced in our aisles and sung along to the stuff we knew, and even didn't know.  I would certainly give Arcade Fire 4 out of 5 stars.  And I think I might even be stingey there.

Once the whole show was over, Alexandra was just about ready to explode, since she drank her whole bottle of water and needed to go to the bathroom.  We had to go through a maze just to find a porta potty, but we did, and she was treated to the darkness of a bottomless john as she contributed her portion to the honeydippers.  We followed afterward.  Nothing like using one of those things.  It makes you realize how much it must have sucked in the dark ages before toilets.  We began to walk back from whence we came, only to be met by a security guard that said no one was allowed to go that way.  This threw a wrench into our return trip.  We had to basically walk around and try to find where everyone else was going, hoping that whoever was at the front of the line had an idea.  Having no access to the path we used to get there, we were forced to walk uneven, wet, muddy grounds in the dark, climbing over hills and ditches, relying on the kindness of strangers at the peaks of some places to pull us up like we were soldering through the fields of war.  In fact, Janice and me were both remarking how eerily similar the scene looked to Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds", with thousands of people aimlessly wandering their way from the aliens across barren fields.  We would sink into the ground without warning into puddles and mud, take random turns in the hopes of getting on the right track, and searched for the path we took getting to the site in the first place.  None of this is easy in the dark with no lights.  As we looked to the west, were Front Mountain Road lie there empty of vehicles, we wondered why the buses weren't allowed to pick up concert goers there, as it would have shortened the walk, made everything clearer, and alleviated the crowding we experienced as everything bottlenecked once we re-emerged at the zoo grounds.  The whole experience just seemed to get worse.

Finally, after a snail's pace of moving in the enormous crowded lineup, where a lot of cheaters skipped past the waiting crowds and butted ahead in line with security guards doing absolutely nothing about it, we made it back to Mountain Road.  There were the buses all lined up and waiting.  Eureka!!  Finally we'll be able to get on and sit down after such a long, pain in the ass walk that took well over an hour and a half.  Little did we know, we were only halfway through.  The empty buses were lined up on the other side of the road.  On our side, we had to walk all the way up as long as the buses were lined up (at least 30), then cross the road to the other side, and walk all the way to the first bus in line because they were only loading two buses at a time!  Un.  Fucking.  Believable.  An hour and a half later, after a restless crowd was steadily losing its patience at the complete lack of logic exhibited by the 'organizers', we finally got on our bus and were carted back to the coliseum, to get into our car and come home.  The last thing we had to eat was a hot dog.  Any hopes of getting something from a take out joint were dashed because it was well after 3am, unless you were willing to get into even more lineups at drive thrus like Rotten Ronnie's or Burger King.  We cut our losses and made a frozen McCain pizza here at home.

So.... the question is begged:  was it worth it?  Would I do it again?  Yes.  For U2.  For KISS.  Probably Coldplay.  For anyone else, though, not a chance.  I don't know how many shows have been at the Hill now, but I would have thought that they would have things better worked out than this by now, especially for the biggest tour since tours have existed on earth.  But no.  Lights to shine the way back?  Pfft.  Track laid to help guide people to where they're going?  Bahh.  Easier access to the 11,000  that chose to take the 'Park and Ride' scheme that cost each person $10 a pop that were promised an easy go of it?  HEY, once they have your $10, sucker, apparently you're on your own.

I say this:  This does NOT bode well for the Magnetic Hill Concert Site.  For the thousands who have traveled to see this show, for those who live here and close who have not seen a show here before, this was hardly a good sell.  This was a deterrent for future shows.  For fans like me who were on the fence about seeing bands like AC/DC.... I'm glad I waited to see U2 first, because had I have gone to any show beforehand, I likely wouldn't have bothered with this shit.  The papers and the media can sing the praises of the Magnetic Hill site all they want.  IT SUCKS.  Period.  Flat out sucks.  And everyone I have talked to or heard from, whether I knew them or not, said the same thing.  Thank God U2 was so good.  Had we have gotten a lacklustre Beach Boys performance like there was at Parlee Beach years ago, it would have sealed the fate of the place.

You can say what you want about Halifax and how they got their shows, how they acquired the funds to get the acts that they did, but it's far, far superior.  We may have the promotion, but Halifax has the grounds and the organization.  When we saw KISS in '09 at the Halfax Commons, it poured buckets all day.  Nonstop, until KISS came on, when it miraculously stopped.  But the grounds there endured the same kind of precipitation that the Hill did.  But, they were well groomed.  Yes, there was mud.  Yes, there were puddles.  But there were lights.  There were streets surrounding the venue.  Bathrooms and concessions were easily accessible.  And when the night was over, we were in our own car and on the road a half an hour later.  It took over three hours between U2 being done to the time we actually made it home.  With Halifax and KISS, we were actually home, back in Moncton, SOONER after it was over.  What does that say about our beloved concert site?

It says it's overrated.  It sucks.  And it needs work, attention, organization, and a lot of heads to get out of the sand.  In this case, mud, before the sun actually hits it and bakes them in solid.  Maybe that's already happened.

And they can't build the new convention center soon enough.  Can't wait to see what treats we have in store with that.