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

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - MORE - EOIN MUR­PHY

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

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