31 July 2001
Elevation 2001: Even Lightning Doesn't Stop This Band
U2's Veteran Soundman Joe O'Herlihy on how a freak lightning strike nearly put paid to a recent show - and what it's like to have been at 1,000 U2 shows.
Joe O'Herlihy may have worked with U2 for more than two decades and may have been responsible for the sound at a thousand shows, but he takes nothing for granted. His worst nightmare nearly came true just a few weeks ago.
'I had my biggest scare, perhaps of all my U2 shows, just a few weeks ago in Stockholm. Ten minutes before the band were due to come on stage there was a bolt of lightning which put out one of the power supplies - it meant that all the settings on my consul went haywire.
'It was bordering on a nightmare for me, actually more like hospital treatment.'
Joe has different settings for up to fifty songs that, conceivably, U2 might decide to perform on any given night - though he estimates that it is 'really only from about 40 that they are likely to vary on any night.'
While there are around 25 songs which appear regularly on the Elevation 2001 tour, he also has to be prepared for the chance of another ten or fifteen.
'They are the ones which just might make the odd appearance depending - usually - on what Bono suddenly decides.'
After years of working with Larry, Edge, Bono and Adam, Joe has an intimate understanding of the sonic requirements of the U2 catalogue and, during two months of rehearsals in Dublin prior to the March opening of the current tour, he came to understand the latest material and prepare the computerised settings for the live shows.
As seems to be the way with the current tour, despite the eleventh hour drama in Stockholm, he and his team got down to work on the sounddesk after the shock of the lightning bolt and - to cut a long story short - the band managed to open the show only fifteen minutes late. Fans had no idea of the off-stage drama and O'Herlihy managed to avoid hospitalisation, even going on to enjoy the show. As has happened so often with the current shows.
'This tour seems to be a celebration of the fact that we are back under a roof again, there is this extraordinary emotional connection here that we haven't achieved in the same way before.' he says. 'U2 have always made a connection, always been the great communicators, but at the moment there is a particularly special emotional experience being shared between the artists and the audience.'
The stage design enhances this, he adds, 'there is an intentional intimacy - it's music from the heart to the heart.'
And personally for Joe, using a new sound system designed especially for indoor arenas, the experience has been a technical boon compared to previous tours. 'For me, looking after the sound, it is wonderful to be back indoors again because we are using a new system from Clair Brothers which has made an enormous difference to the sonic proportions and capability we have, far superior to anything before. 'Technically, in one foul swoop, we have a one thousand per cent improvement...'
As if to prove that this is not just some audio-tech enhancement that the audience are oblivious too, he cites the way that Bono is increasingly being quoted word for word in concert reviews: 'Journalists can hear exactly what he is saying, vocal intelligibility has never been as good as this.'
Joe first looked after sound for U2 in 1978, September 25th to be precise, at the Arcadia Ballroom in Cork City. 'That was my first show and I've been there every since.'
So what's different today ?
'The difference you see is simply one of musical maturity, they have grown up as their music has grown up. 'The band are as committed to each other and to their music as ever and that spirit filters through the whole touring party. Sure, life has changed a lot for them with partners and marriages and children since I first knew them, since they first got together as like a school gang. I think that gang has not essentially changed - even though the school has a little bit.'
What does he recall of that first show ?
'They were the first band on of five in a college competition and, as with most opening acts, they were only playing to a handful of people as everyone got their drinks or hung up coats. 'But I remember that everyone knew immediately that this was something special - as soon as Bono started running around the audience with his fifty foot microphone lead.'
It was something to do with their identity as a band he recalls, something about the way they became greater together than their individual constituent musical roles suggested.
'Onstage they seemed to take on a different entity, there was something coming from within which was bigger than it should have been. 'Aand they were playing their own songs too,' he adds. 'Which was mainly 'cos they couldn't play anyone else's.'
That sense that Larry, Adam, Bono and Edge, who have become some of Joe's oldest friends, still become something that transcends their individual selves when onstage, is still there. And this from a man who has seen them play more than anyone outside the band except manager Paul McGuinness.
'They still have that something bigger within when they play....and I've only ever missed about seven U2 shows!'
And the live performance of songs from All That You Can't Leave Behind offer an emotional experience equal to any that U2 have offered down the years. 'Standing at the mix during the show as I do, it is great to see the reaction of fans as I look around, particularly the fact that they already know the new songs as word perfectly as they do the old songs. It means that there is a seamlessness between the older material and the new songs, that feelgood factor is in the new songs as much as the old.'
So, after a thousand and more U2 shows - he has never kept a running tally - does Joe ever get the slightest bit tired of hearing U2 play.
'Never, I never get tired of hearing them playing. I'm on this one for the big voyage and what I felt when I first saw them I still feel now, that this was a band intent on really making it happen.