That Time U2 Landed a Spaceship in Moncton
Barcelona, Berlin, London, Moscow, Moncton?
One of these cities does not sound like the others, but only one of these cities has the distinction of saying that they hosted the final show of the highest grossing, most successful music tour of all time, and that city is Moncton, New Brunswick. On July 30, 2011, after two years of planning, the city’s Magnetic Music Festival hosted U2’s final outing of their record-setting 360° Tour.
For their first stadium tour in over a decade, U2 worked their inner circle to develop an in-the-round 360 degree show. What they came up with was the Claw, which writer Dylan Jones called “vast”, “ground-breaking”, “and “breathtakingly beautiful” as well as “a triumph of practicality, allowing fans in all parts of a football stadium an unequalled experience.” The Claw was a 200-ton four-pronged monstrosity that resembled a spaceship and housed the loudest sound system ever assembled. It also featured a 151 ft. pylon in the middle with a disco ball on top for good measure, and an expandable cylindrical LED screen and some rotating bridges just off the main stage. It was the most expensive rock n’ roll show ever and went on to sell over seven million tickets from 2009-2011 grossing over 800 million dollars.
So how did this spaceship end up touching down for one final stop in Moncton of all places?
The city’s Magnetic Hill concert site has housed the likes of Pope John Paul II, The Eagles and The Rolling Stones, with the moves of Mick Jagger managing to sell 80,000 tickets, but based on the 360° Tour’s unique set up it took quite a bit of work to bring in Bono and the boys.
After the success of the Stones concert, Andre Hudon, President, and CEO of Donald K Donald Entertainment noticed a big demand for people from all over Atlantic Canada and parts of Quebec and their willingness to travel to see big-name artists who do not normally come this far east for their tours. In a telephone conversation with Hudon, he noted that Moncton was a great place to host these big acts because it was located centrally in Atlantic Canada. Hudon also noted that most concertgoers from the region and Quebec (besides Newfoundland of course) could make the trip in just a few hours. “I really wanted to bring U2 to Atlantic Canada,” said Hudon, thinking that if any band could top the ticket sales from the Rolling Stones concert it would be U2.
Once Hudon got wind of the 360° Tour before it launched in 2009, he began his pitch to attract U2’s claw to Magnetic Hill. “We know the people who manage their world tour very well, so we reached out to them and asked if there was a possibility of including Moncton as part of their routing,” he said. Initially, they were turned down, due to 360°’s unique in the round premise. U2’s people said this tour was designed for stadiums and not fields. “So I took it upon myself as being a challenge,” remarked Hudon noting that it took “a lot of planning [and] a lot of logistics.”
He came up with the idea of building temporary stadium grandstands at the bottom of Magnetic Hill in a u-shape with the Claw nestled in the middle and the hill itself serving as the general admission area. He presented this idea in the form of floor plans and CAD drawings to the band, but by this time it was too late as the tour had already been mapped out.
An opportunity would arise however after the band had to postpone the 2010 North American leg after Bono suffered an injury, which required emergency spinal surgery just weeks before the tour was about to resume in Salt Lake City. The singer required eight weeks of physical rehabilitation so it was decided to resume with the European leg later in the summer, which meant postponing the North American leg to 2011 allowing for a final show in Moncton to be tacked on at the end of the rescheduled dates.
These plans were being set in the fall of 2010 and about a week before announcing the show, U2’s tour production manager flew to Moncton to visit the Magnetic Hill site. Hudon noted that U2’s people were adamant that the site needed to have a flat surface, which he guaranteed. The problem was that this flat surface had to also be level in order to set up the stage. This meant that the announcement would have to hold off until a solution could be found. Hudon and the city of Moncton came up with the idea to cut into Magnetic Hill in order to make a flat surface. A sort of ring that the stage could be set on was built after excavation was complete.
Aron J. Sams, who is based out of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and helps run U2Songs.com which catalogues the band’s discography, believes he is the “the guy who figured out U2 were coming to Atlantic Canada and told the world before the show was actually announced.” “It was my mom that actually told me about the show,” he recounted via e-mail. “She called me one night and said she had heard from someone in the community that U2 were coming to Moncton. I promptly told her she was crazy,” said Sams.
Despite this, he started to explore the possibility. He ended up discovering that there “was something going on [in Moncton] that particular weekend as one of the local hotels was all booked out months in advance.” (He would later discover it had been booked out for U2’s crew.) A few days later, the wording on U2.com had been changed and was now referring to the July 26 show in Pittsburgh as the “last US show” as opposed to simply the last show. A few weeks later, U2 announced the concert via their website.
Sams said that this announcement brought a mixed reaction amongst the U2 fan community. “The Canadians, of course, were happy,” he said. “But many who had planned on going to the final show were not amused that there was another show to try to plan for.” Sams noted that he had secured tickets to what was billed as the final 360° show in Minneapolis but got rid of them in order to attend a show closer to home. “Many didn’t even know where Moncton was, and I was able to help out a lot of fans,” he said and noted that many people stayed in Halifax and traveled to Moncton for the show.
Kieran Lonergan who came all the way from Cork, Ireland was one of those fans who had no idea where Moncton was. He said it took him about a week and a half to get from Ireland as he traveled from there to Toronto, Montreal and finally Moncton.
“U2, probably more so than any other band have a very loyal following,” Hudon said noting large groups of people like Lonergan and Sams who travel to multiple shows throughout the tour. “The band knows them, and security knows them.” Sams is one of those fans. He attended U2 360’s opening night in Barcelona as well as twenty-one other stops including Moncton.
75,000 people ended up attending the Magnetic Hill Music festival that year and Hudon believes that had an afternoon of heavy rain not descended upon the hill they could have beaten the Stones attendance from 2005. There were 30,000 people in the grandstands and the other 45,000 on the field. Arcade Fire who had performed surprise shows in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and Sackville, New Brunswick opened for U2. Once The Irish rockers took the stage, Hudon said that the weather had cleared, giving way to a “beautiful evening. By that time, people were standing knee-deep in mud but everybody seemed to have a good time. U2 is one band that that tends to push the limits of technology in order to provide the ultimate consumer experience. [They have] been masterful of that.”
Many of those in attendance echoed these sentiments and Sams said, “Moncton was definitely up there as one of the best that I saw.”
The show featured a flyover by the Canadian Air Force and a standard setlist that had been featured throughout the 2011 leg as well as some surprises. Bono performed a snippet of “The Ballad of Springhill” a folk song about a 1958 mining disaster near Cumberland County, Nova Scotia. They also extended the set and performed their very first single “Out Of Control” which had only been brought out a few times during 360 as well as the only performance of “40” an album cut that closed most of the band’s 80’s concerts. (A recording of this performance appears on the U2 fan club release that accompanied From The Ground Up: U2360° Tour by Dylan Jones). Hudon recalled the concert as being emotional and celebratory as it marked the end of a two-year odyssey and crewmembers and the band would be heading home.
There is a photo floating around the Internet that was published on U2.com of a fan in the front row holding up a sign that read Where the heck are we?! “I remember seeing that photo,” said Hudon. “It was so funny because everyone was saying Why Moncton? Why did the tour end in Moncton of all places?”
Reflecting upon the whole process, Hudon said, “it took me two years to convince these people [to hold a concert it Moncton]. There was a lot of back and forth and I wasn’t giving up.” Hudon, his people and the city of Moncton found a way to make it happen and then the opportunity presented itself when the tour dates were rescheduled for summer 2011.
Hudon said that while he is probably best known for organizing and promoting Rolling Stones shows throughout Canada, U2’s Moncton show really stand out in his mind. “I’m at the tail end of my career; hopefully I’m going to retire soon,” he said with a chuckle. “When I look back, there’s few events that have marked my career; [U2 in Moncton] was certainly one of them.”