Cleveland, Ohio, 1991. We own the title of “Rock And Roll Capital Of The World”, though groundbreaking for the iconic Rock Hall is still two years off. And the kids are alright…
Guns N’ Roses plays Richfield Coliseum and nobody dies. Also in Richfield, the “Clash Of The Titans” Tour features a little-known band called Alice in Chains. Nirvana plays the Empire Concert Club in October, prior to “Teen Spirit” breaking the world. It’s the first year of the formerly-traveling Lollapalooza. Cleveland is, as it has been my whole life, a center of the music universe – anybody and everybody plays here.
But then, very suddenly, it’s 2010 and the bottom has dropped out. The Odeon is now a dance club in the Flats nobody goes to because everything around it is abandoned and creepy. No Empire, no Peabody’s, no Flats, period. The bands it never occurred to us would not play Cleveland are suddenly no longer playing Cleveland. I remember vividly a conversation with my best friend, “I gotta get the fuck out of this city,” I told her. “U2 doesn’t even come here anymore.”
The tanking of the economy in 2008 and Cleveland’s miserably slow recovery is the first thing that comes to mind. Music is a business – tours are expensive to put on and bands aren’t going to come here if there’s a chance the return won’t be worth the investment. Large population losses over the last twenty years that are still occurring today coupled with Cleveland’s long-suffering low-wage economy saw the music scene disappear from the urban landscape, with many bands, most notably big names including U2, opting for Columbus instead (Note: Columbus didn’t actually outgrow Cleveland, it just incorporated its suburbs).
Changes to the structure of the music touring industry have also affected Cleveland. Most major concert acts are booked into The Land via Live Nation, a nationally-owned entertainment conglomerate that is naturally going to aim for music markets with a higher ROI while Cleveland takes a backseat. Former WMMS king John Gorman stated in an interview with WCPN last year, “Cleveland is one line on a ledger at Live Nation and that’s it.”
Gorman also cited a lack of communication, “nobody’s talking to one another”, and the local music scene lacking in artist development as further reasons for the decline in artists having interest in touring here.
Cleveland Marketing exec Denny Young stated in the same WCPN interview he feels it’s also related to the lack of aesthetics and service in our music venues: “People will pay for what they feel believe is value. Bruce Springsteen is value…but not everybody is Bruce Springsteen, so you have to create an experience with the concert. The old concert promoters – Jules Belkin, Bill Graham – they created an experience out of the event, that’s why festivals are doing so well around the country. But if you go to a club or a theatre in Cleveland and the best you can do is a beer and a bag of pretzels…”
But Cleveland is BACK, right? Two championship-level major sports teams, food tourism, the Flats are back, and now so is the Odeon. The much-lauded resurgence is real and the hard numbers look good: the number of young, college-educated adults moving back to Cleveland increased 23% in six years and continues to rise annually.
And now here comes U2, returning to the Rock Capital after a 12-year absence, touring in celebration of the 30th-anniversary of their acclaimed 1987 album, The Joshua Tree, treating concert attendees to the full vinyl in its entirety.
Like the rest of America, Cleveland is a city divided and the man infamous for preachy political rockstar-isms is keeping it a bit muted this time. They all are. The show begins with the solitary figure of lanky Larry Mullen, Jr. walking out to the center stage by himself, no fireworks or giant lemons, sits down and just starts to drum the beat heard round the world as the opening to “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. The Edge walks down the platform as his guitar melody pops in, followed by Bono, bassist Adam Clayton and only the accompaniment of the crowds cheers.
There were those occasions, The Joshua Tree’s lyrics and the band’s reputation do warrant political discourse, but there was no platform, no anger, no one called out by name. Bono’s main point of the night was for right and left to come together, something no one disagrees with. Even the video screen was mostly unprovocative, no glitzy Trabants, profound statements flashed on screen or video conversations with world leaders. Bono did take a subtle dig at the U.S. immigration controversy, thanking us for letting the Irish in for over a hundred years. The band’s performance of “Ultraviolet” was dedicated to the history and success of women and featured a screen tribute that included Michelle Obama and Plain Dealer music writer Jane Scott, who got most of the audience’s love.
U2 seem content to let the music be the star of the show. Time really does heal all wounds and U2 knows this – the harsh realities of life explored on The Joshua Tree are now distant memories for both band and audience. U2 can’t recreate 1987 and had they tried, it would have appeared like a desperate plea for relevance by trying to cram a beloved classic rock album back down our throats. Instead, The Joshua Tree 30th-Anniversary Tour aims to be a celebration and reflection of what was.
As The Edge begins the jangling opening to “Bad”, Bono tells us they are surrendering themselves to the music, “and now we surrender the music to you.”
This was the right call, as evidenced by the audience’s performance of “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” – no live audience participation exists in the studio version of “Pride”, but the crowd of die-hard Cleveland fans has heard it live so many times, either in-person or on U2’s concert albums, we’re able to follow through on our vocal parts with no lead or further instruction required.
“Bullet The Blue Sky” still feels intense and a bit raucous, especially through The Edge’s gritty guitar solo and the haunting echo that ends it as Bono calmly speaks the ending, “of America”.
“In God’s Country” and “New Year’s Day” stand out as the two tracks that feel like they’ve lost some of their aggression, both lyrically and musically. Bono’s vocals are struggling sometimes; he even sounds hoarse talking to the audience at some points. The crowd didn’t seem to care but he did. Bono’s image was being projected onto the large screen as he prepped himself to belt it through the last verse of “Red Hill Mining Town”. He rocked his shoulders back, took a few deep breaths and committed to it. He missed not a single note.
U2 is now the medium by which The Joshua Tree’s message is delivered rather than just the creator of the message itself. After thirty years, the album has taken on its own life inside the heads of the millions who connected to it. I posed the question in my prior article on U2, would we hear “One Tree Hill” differently now that we’re all thirty years older and most of us have now had the experience of burying people young? Bono already knew this as he recalled the loss of Greg Carroll to the Cleveland audience and mused that we would be thinking of who we lost, someone whose untimely death was the first to make us realise our own mortality. Too many of us nodded in agreement.
As the crowd of over 55,000 makes the collective trudge from Cleveland Browns Stadium up the E. 9th St. bridge, I have a moment of deja vu and recall this ritual walk wearing several layers of brown-and-orange clothing and shame. As one long-suffering Clevelander so graciously put it in a Facebook comment about his experience at U2’s show, “This is the happiest I’ve felt leaving Cleveland Browns Stadium in a long time…” We deserve stadium concerts, if for no other reason than nothing else good may ever happen there.
More importantly, Northeast Ohio music lovers are being treated to the beginning of what could be a Renaissance in Cleveland’s music scene. Tom Petty, New Kids On The Block and Franz Ferdinand just rolled through town, U2 graciously returned, and the Kings Of Leon, alt-J and Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival are just a few of the gems fancying a gig here these days – sure, it’s great for soccer moms, festival-goers and pre-teens, but what about the rest of us?
Now it’s up to our local music scene. Take Gorman and Young’s advice: create a concert experience, communicate with and promote each other, be more proactive inviting bands to Cleveland, take artist development seriously and be the international band-breaking city we were when WMMS owned the airwaves and Chris’ Warped Records held meet-and-greets. Be a real Music City, like Nashville or Austin, and the rewards will stick around long after bands like U2 have gone.