Over the last year, I've become known as a bit of a setlist freak for my fascination with and knowledge of U2's concert setlists. For those who aren't in the U2 fandom and haven't picked up on it from a few LJ entries, setlists are a hobby of sorts for me; not only do I love creating custom sets, but I am also one of the two maintainers of U2-Vertigo-Tour.com (and Elevation-Tour.com and U2Setlists.com, which use the same database) and have a considerable portion of the site memorised. In U2 circles, setlist variation has become the source of considerable debate lately after some of us (myself included) asserted that the setlists at the five consecutive New York shows did not vary enough. For this reason, I'm writing this entry to explain my position on setlist variation in a general sense, though I'd like to provide some context on the New York setlist debate first.
Between the 7th and the 14th of this month, U2 played five consecutive concerts in New York, and as a number of songs had already debuted on tour this leg and more were known or rumoured to have been rehearsed, anticipation was added to the usual expectation that U2's setlists on the third, fourth, and especially fifth nights would be different to the norm. As it turned out, U2 performed 31 different songs over the five shows which were 22-23 songs long each, there were no tour debuts, the order stayed almost the same, City Of Blinding Lights opened all five nights (on the first leg, COBL and Love And Peace Or Else alternated as openers in cities with just two shows!), and although roughly five songs a night were different to the previous show, this often just meant a song that had been played one or two shows beforehand returned (such as the case of Yahweh, which made the first, third, and fifth shows). If you look at the fourth Chicago or Boston shows from Elevation's first leg or the fourth Chicago show of Vertigo's first leg, you'll notice a dramatic difference to the normal order of the main set, and when this completely failed to occur in New York even after five shows, heated debate took off in a big way.
Now that things are cooler and arguments have become clearer, I'd like to present my case for setlist variety.
Many people will only attend one concert on a given tour, and especially when playing in venues the size U2 play in, a lot of people will be casual fans who can't tell you that Twilight is track two on Boy. These people generally want to hear the band's bigger hits and classics, and some bands (especially U2) would like to play a show that portrays given themes, emotions, and messages - and the more refined and well-played the songs are, the better these can be conveyed. Some argue that casual fans will not check the setlist online beforehand and most of the crowd will not be aware of what's coming and what has been played on the tour so far. This is the general justification people give for static setlists. I refute this in its entirety.
Firstly, this is rock and roll, not theatre. In a play, one expects to see the same thing each night - the same characters speaking the same lines. When it comes to a rock and roll show, the atmosphere is totally different, it is an atmosphere of spontaneity and excitement and a genuine sense that anything can happen. Will Edge play an extended solo? Will Bono pull a guy out of the crowd to play guitar with the band? What in the world could possibly be coming next? You don't expect to see a band on autopilot or a band reading off the same script as the last thirty shows. There's an idea (which U2, to their detriment, focused heavily on during the ZooTV Tour) of making each show seem genuinely spontaneous when it isn't - now, to me, that's acting, not rock music. You can cut out all this acting and keep the genuine spontaneity by throwing in setlist variety. Head on a wild ride through your band's material and who knows what might happen. The element of true surprise is present, the element of spontaneity is there, and you have yourself an unpredictable rock show rather than a nice little piece of theatre. When I saw the Finn Brothers in July, although I'm only a casual fan, I had an idea of what songs they were playing on tour and I knew of their varied setlists: the show proved to be extremely spontaneous, to the point where they played a request from the audience and I was wondering what could possibly happen next. That's the way it should be.
Now, any band needs to play their hits and classics - people want to hear the popular stuff! A small band, however, can shuffle their hits through a set littered with more obscure material, while a band with a long history has so many classics that they could not possibly play them all in one night. People may attend to hear the classics, and may even hope for a specific song, but if you've a gigantic catalogue, you can't possibly play all of it on a given night but shuffling through it and swapping songs nightly at least gives the catalogue the representation it deserves. For example, instead of playing I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For every night, U2 could bring in songs such as New Year's Day, The Unforgettable Fire, Even Better Than The Real Thing, Stay, or Gone - all popular songs on the Best Of discs. At least these songs would get the live appearances they deserve rather than being left on the chopping block! I'm sure any casual fan would appreciate those five I listed just as much as they'd appreciate I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.
But that raises a very important point - why are we concerned with the casual fan anyway? When U2 first appeared, they were an unknown Irish band and in the space of seven years and five tours, they rose to the status of music superstars. On these tours that created and then solidified their popularity, they were playing songs much of the crowd hadn't even heard of, and yet the material connected so well that many of these people were converted to the group. At the start of a show, people would be wondering what these four Irish guys were going to play; by the halfway stage, Bono would have them in the palm of his hand, lapping up whatever the band gave them. Why can't they do that now? Why do some think less popular and more varied material won't appeal to audiences? And ultimately, why play to the casual fan who doesn't even own half your discography and may not even go to the next tour when you could play to the dedicated fans in the audience who have supported you through your entire career? I would argue the dedicated fans matter a lot more - and if you've already proven you can entertain the casual fans with songs they don't know, there's no reason to stop, especially as the dedicated fans will love the surprises and the unpredictability of setlist variety and everyone in the crowd will enjoy the spontaneity and atmosphere of excitement that would be present.
I think U2 themselves gave my case a huge boost at the second Boston show in May. At the end of Until The End Of The World, as the rest of the band were seguing into With Or Without You, Bono turns around and screams "OUT OF CONTROL!" - a song that hadn't been played at all on tour. The roof nearly blew off the Fleet Centre. The absolutely genuine spontaneity of the event defined what a rock and roll show should be. A show shouldn't be scripted and predictable: play to the hardcore fans while entertaining the casual fans, and cultivate an atmosphere of surprise by varying the setlist nightly. Give no-one an excuse to be unsurprised!
Now that I've written this ridiculously long entry that doesn't even discuss all the points I wanted to cover, will anyone actually bother to read it?