Uncomfortable truths in the Bible Belt
They could have started in LA or New York... but U2 chose to kick off their tour in Tulsa, and here the band explain their thinking
Agang of mobility scooters populated by some heavy-set locals terrorise the pavements on North Main Street Tulsa making their way to a local baseball game. The population of the Oklahoma city appears to be very elderly and predominantly white although the driver of the transfer bus has helpfully pointed out the street which houses the local African American community and refers to it glibly as ‘brown town’. ‘You get really good food up there,’ she continues pointing at a dilapidated red brick street.
Welcome to America’s Bible Belt, where fundamental Christian communities battle it out daily for your soul and where inclusivity has a chequered history. The Tulsa race riots broke out in 1921, with whites attacking blacks. The death toll is estimated to be as high as 300 people. On the surface it does not appear to have recovered from this tragedy.
What’s immediately striking as you drive through this city is the number of churches that stand amidst this sprawling mass of industrial warehouses, drilling and mining machinery and a thriving bail bond industry. The Bible Belt is known for its cultural tendency toward political and social conservatism. And U2 are here, if not quite to shake those foundations, then to tease out an appreciation for a wider worldview.
But the band has some competition. It is the day before they play the BOK Center and one concerned campaigner has set up shop and is handing out leaflets promising to ‘Make America Pray Again’. Another local church has hired out a loud speaker. ‘If you believe that Jesus suffered on the cross so you could drink beer, idolise sports and listen to rock and roll and just keep on sinning, think again. Repent y’all.’
Four blocks from the venue, sits The Tavern, a slightly out-ofplace New York-style restaurant and cocktail bar. It’s here in a private dining room and swirling a glass of California Syrah, that The Edge ponders the most obvious question ahead of U2’s latest tour launch: Why here? Why start in Tulsa?
‘We definitely didn’t want to open in New York or LA, we wanted to play somewhere with a little…. We hadn’t played Tulsa in living memory so we said, “yeah, great let’s do it”. Then it dawned on us that it is a conservative part of America. We got excited about that aspect of it and this show being seen for the first time in a place that really is not a typical rock’n’roll centre. A place where you are bumping into a different facet of American culture and politics and life – and that interests us.’
The Edge says the show avoids explicitly mentioning Donald Trump but the wider theme of divisiveness is the constant trope of the second act. Powerful images of Nazis, the KKK and the Charlottesville rallies are broadcast on both sides of a 100ft long double-sided LED screen.
Beside The Edge, Adam Clayton sits quietly sipping water.
‘It’s actually great to be in Tulsa of all places,’ he says. ‘I don’t know if you saw Cain’s Ballroom, which is at the end of the street.
‘When we played here for the first time about 35 years ago, I definitely remember Cain’s. It is different to start here, yes, but we have always tried to do things differently to other bands.’
The bassist is somewhat less comfortable being grilled by the media than The Edge, or later Bono. A new father, you get the sense he would much rather be at home. ‘I really would like to take a break and spend some time with our baby... But abnormal life on the road is, now, normal. Now I’ve got so used to it being abnormal that it’s quite normal. I find it very hard to cope with losing my anonymity, my freedom. But you figure out how to deal with it. I know how to hold more back for me.’
These days, he says ‘I feel I’m much more contained and centred now. I don’t think I would do it all again if I was starting out again. These people starting out now have to be on top of so many different things before they get to song writing. Everyone is working very hard on their social media and there doesn’t seem to be much money to fund yourself, it’s really difficult. But I don’t have to worry about that. All I have to concentrate on now is getting this new show ready for the road.’
On the short walk through the unremarkable neon and concrete streets to the arena, which by day is an ice hockey arena for the Tulsa Oilers, we stop to chat to some local law enforcers. They are happy to
talk until one discovers we are a herd of Irish journalists. ‘Oh the media,’ he sneers. ‘Take it easy with all that fake news,’ and he pats his holstered gun before turning away.
We walk through the concrete corridors that wind through the backstage area before landing in an empty arena floor. It’s here that finally, you can feel the magic. Apart from teams of technicians, engineers and computer designers, one lonely figure is parading the stage. Bono. It is four hours to show time and the singer is still fine-tuning various show-stopping moments. The stage is mighty and impressive. The 200-tonne screen perfectly splits the arena in two and the entire show is in the round. As we arrive Bono is rehearsing a lesser known track from Achtung Baby. The frontman is projected onto the giant screen and is playfully mocking Edge, who has joined him on the stage, before spraying water into a camera at the side. ‘We play a lot of tracks we haven’t done in a while and we have forgotten how to play some of the original stuff,’ he tells me.
Speaking before the show he reveals some of the teething problems that had hampered their rehearsals. ‘It is sort of like doing a big Marvel movie. Except you are taking it to a different city every few days and it is a bit mad. And worse than that, for me it is like a Marvel film where you have to method act. So that’s not right. It was going really sh*** on the dress rehearsal but I think now we have put some things in place that will make it a little less indulgent... It is a personal story; trying to take the solipsistic aspect out of it is impossible.
‘But you don’t want to be too self-indulgent because it is a rock ’n’ roll band in the end.’
The easy option for the band would have been to mirror the previous show and crank out the hits but this is U2 and innovation and bravery are hardwired into their DNA. The best way of describing this journey is by listing the songs not on
the set list. New Year’s Day, Bad, Zoo Station, Ultra Violet, With Or Without You and Where The
Streets Have No Name. They open the show to rapturous applause and go headfirst into the Songs
Of Innocence section of the show. This is followed by the Songs Of
Experience leg and this proves a big hit as the big screen burst into life. The screen wasn’t just used as a projection screen to duplicate what was occurring on stage. It provided a canvas for powerful visual effects and images which allowed U2 to take on issues without Bono sermonising.
When images of real-life hate from nearby Charlottesville from news, are shown on the video screen there are more than a few uncomfortable looks in the crowd. Some people leave but one fan sitting in front of me turns around and shouts, ‘we aren’t all like that buddy’. Before long the sermon has ended and by the time the dissenters reach the top of the stairs the opening chords to
Pride ring through the arena and the KKK members and swastikas are replaced by images of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The show is a technological triumph and the fact that the entire set list stands up to scrutiny without the Joshua Tree hits, is a testament to the band’s breath of material.
After the show the band jump into a team of blacked-out cars and heads straight to the airport.
Gene Pitney famously wrote about 24 Hours From Tulsa, but after spending five nights there, U2 seem happy to be leaving the confines of the nearby Mayo hotel.
PRide: U2 on stage in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Old haunt: Cain’s where U2 played 35 years ago GiG venue: The BOK Center
oIl country: The Golden Driller statue in Tulsa
downtown: Grey clouds over Tulsa