On Sept. 25, 2006, Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong stood on a stage erected at the 50-yard line prior to a Monday Night Football game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons and intoned, “There is a house in New Orleans, they call the Superdome.”
With that, a collective chill shivered down the spines of the 70,000 faithful gathered to celebrate the resurrection of the Superdome, and the city.
Emotions were already running high for the first game in the Dome since Hurricane Katrina had rendered it a symbol of suffering and despair known around the world a year earlier. Against that backdrop, Green Day, U2 and a New Orleans horn section delivered the most meaningful, most powerful nine minutes of music in the building's 41-year history.
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A decade later, that moment and that music still resonate.
Armstrong’s alteration of the opening lines of “The House of the Rising Sun,” a folk song popularized by the British Invasion band the Animals in the 1960s, gave way to “The Saints Are Coming,” a surging anthem first recorded by a Scottish punk band, the Skids, in the 1970s.
Both songs, though decades old, were perfectly suited for the occasion. So were the two contemporary compositions that bracketed those oldies: Green Day’s opening “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” a diary of loss, and U2’s concluding “Beautiful Day,” an ode to finding joy despite loss.
The nine-minute musical narrative traced New Orleans' progression from nightmare to resolve to rebirth.
Five months earlier, Bruce Springsteen & the Seeger Sessions Band had similarly captured and amplified raw, post-Katrina emotions. Their set during the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was an incredibly powerful meeting of music and moment.
But Springsteen’s session touched only the thousands of fans gathered on the Fair Grounds infield. U2 and Green Day reached a global television audience of millions, and they added an enduring fight song to the Saints canon. "The Saints Are Coming" is still featured at home games.
It will be on the playlist when the Saints once again face the Falcons on Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a day after the 10-year anniversary of their fateful "Dome-coming" showdown.
The NFL, which excels at mythology, aspired to create a Super Bowl-like atmosphere for that first game in the Dome after Katrina. Thus, the pregame festivities required superstar talent.
The task of securing such talent fell to Ken Ehrlich, producer of the Grammy Awards telecast and a huge fan of New Orleans music, and his buddy Quint Davis, Jazz Fest’s longtime producer. Barely a month before kickoff, they pulled off a coup: convincing U2 and Green Day, two of the biggest rock bands in the world, to collaborate for the first time.
They would not be the only prominent performers at the Superdome. The pop-rock band the Goo Goo Dolls played outside on the concourse. Local legends Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas — both of whom lost their homes to Katrina’s floodwaters — teamed up for the national anthem.
But U2 and Green Day would conjure up the Big Moment such a night demanded.
New Orleans has not always been particularly receptive to U2. In November 1997, the band toughed out a poorly attended show in the Superdome during the PopMart Tour. The sight of all those empty seats apparently made a lasting impression: Nineteen years later, U2 has yet to route another tour through New Orleans.
When the band returned in February 2002 to perform during halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI, guitarist The Edge joked, with more than a hint of sarcasm, that this time around the Dome would be full.
But The Edge immediately stepped up to assist after Katrina. He, producer Bob Ezrin and Gibson Guitar Corp. Chairman Henry Juszkiewicz co-founded Music Rising, a charitable organization whose goal was to replace lost instruments for musicians, churches and schools across the Gulf Coast.
Edge and his bandmates could have parachuted into New Orleans for the “Dome-coming,” recited a couple of hits verbatim and called it a day. Instead, they and the members of Green Day crafted a very special show.
Ezrin wrote horn arrangements — neither U2 nor Green Day normally uses horns — so local musicians could join in. During the performance, Bono name-checked the New Birth and Rebirth brass bands, as well as Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. (He omitted “Big” Sam Williams, who was on trombone.)
More significantly, Bono altered the lyrics of “Beautiful Day” to speak directly to the city. In what was likely the most prominent pop-culture mention ever for at least two New Orleans neighborhoods, he sang, “See Gentilly and Lakeview, Crescent City right in front of you/Birds sing in broken trees, they’re coming home to New Orleans.”
He continued, “Lower 9th will rise again above the waters of Lake Pontchartrain," before shifting back to the song's original lyric, which contained a relevant image from the biblical account of Noah: "See the bird with the leaf in her mouth/After the flood, all the colors came out.”
And then … liftoff. “Beautiful Day” soared. The Green Day boys bashed away as Bono emoted for all the world: “Fats Domino, you’re beautiful! Allen Toussaint, you’re beautiful! Art Neville … you’re beautiful!”
He concluded by teasing out the words “music rising,” a not-so-subtle reference to The Edge’s charity.
Of the four songs included in the medley, the rousing “The Saints Are Coming” proved to be the most enduring. The Scottish members of the Skids weren't originally singing about an NFL team from New Orleans, but they might as well have been. In the Superdome, the chorus came across like a rallying cry.
Two versions of "The Saints Are Coming" were released commercially in the weeks following the game. The single's “B” side is the live audio from the Superdome, with its call-and-response horn section and unbridled energy.
The “A” side didn't crackle with the same electricity. It was recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London by U2 and Green Day without the horn section. In the prelude, Armstrong sticks to the traditional lyric: “There is a house in New Orleans, they call the Rising Sun.” Substituting "Superdome" for "Rising Sun" in the live version made for a far more compelling intro.
The studio version also suffered from the awkwardly conceived music video that accompanied it. The video altered authentic footage of marooned Katrina survivors by adding imaginary stealth fighter jets and Apache helicopters flying to the rescue. The director apparently wanted to show what he wished had happened in the storm's aftermath. Instead, he diluted the impact of the real footage.
There were no such missteps by U2, Green Day and their local collaborators at the Superdome on that remarkable Monday night 10 years ago.
As any Saints fan can confirm, the game exceeded expectations. Some watershed moments were scripted, such as the unfurling of an enormous "Our Home. Our Team. Be a Saint" banner outside the Dome.
Some were entirely spontaneous, as when Steve Gleason blocked a Falcons punt that was recovered for a Saints touchdown — one of the greatest plays in the team's history.
U2, Green Day and "The Saints Are Coming" set the stage for it.