In Paris on Monday night, the members of U2 once again tried to throw their arms around the world. And once again, they succeeded.
During U2’s encore at the AccorHotels Arena, Bono and his bandmates welcomed surprise guests: Eagles of Death Metal, the American rock band that was onstage when terrorists stormed Paris’ Bataclan concert hall on Nov. 13 and slaughtered 90 people.
Not surprisingly, Eagles of Death Metal have largely remained out of the public eye since that terrible night when they barely escaped with their lives, even as scores of fans were shot down. Their only official interview to date has been a tearful, somber discussion with Vice magazine.
U2 had been scheduled to perform two shows in Paris starting the night after the Eagles of Death Metal gig at the Bataclan. The concerts were postponed in the wake of France’s state of emergency, but Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton vowed to return to Paris as soon as possible.
Three weeks later, they made good on that promise. The Paris tragedy would loom large over the rescheduled concerts. Addressing that tragedy — and it absolutely had to be addressed — in what is typically a celebratory setting would be a challenge.
But this was not the first time U2 was stuck in a moment that demanded more than just a concert. And as New Orleanians can attest, U2 is up to the challenge.
In early 2002, U2 performed at halftime of Super Bowl XXXVI in the Superdome — the first Super Bowl after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. How to handle that particular halftime show had weighed heavily on league officials. As Yahoo Sports writer Les Carpenter chronicled in a 2013 account, several NFL officials attended a U2 concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden that fall. During the show, names of Sept. 11 victims were projected onto the arena’s ceiling. Concert-goers wept in what proved to be a cathartic moment.
Days later, the NFL approached U2 about staging a similar show during the Super Bowl. At the Superdome, the names scrolled on a giant screen; Bono, Irish by birth, opened his leather jacket to reveal its American flag lining. The band managed to both acknowledge the tragedy and uplift the audience, a delicate balancing act played out for tens of millions of television viewers around the world.
Four years later, U2 returned to the Superdome, once again under extraordinary circumstances. In cahoots with Green Day, they rocked the renovated Dome as it reopened for the first time after Hurricane Katrina.
That pre-game performance, coordinated in part by New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival producer Quint Davis, essentially traced the emotional progression that so many of us along the Gulf Coast had endured the previous 14 months. The opening song, Green Day’s “Wake Me Up (When September Ends),” was the shocked and stunned initial reaction to the trauma. With “House of the Rising Sun,” we reasserted our identity. Careening into “The Saints Are Coming,” a two-decade-old anthem by Scottish punk band the Skids, we were defiant, determined and unbowed, ready to take on the massive challenge.
Finally, U2’s “Beautiful Day” celebrated the renewal, the dawn that followed the darkness. Bono name-checked local collaborators Trombone Shorty, the New Birth and Rebirth brass bands. He also altered the song’s lyrics, singing, “Crescent City right in front of you/Birds sing in broken trees, coming home to New Orleans/Lower 9th will rise again, above the waters of Lake Pontchartrain.”
It was a masterful, spine-tingling performance. Tears of sadness gave way to cheers of joy. No other band could have handled it more effectively.
U2 chose to be at the Superdome that night in 2006. They did not choose for their originally scheduled Paris concerts to coincide with a bloodbath.
But once again, they found an appropriate way to respond.
During the encore at the AccorHotels Arena on Monday — U2 had also headlined the same arena the previous night — Bono introduced Eagles of Death Metal as “our brothers, our fellow troubadours. They were robbed of their stage three weeks ago, and we would like to offer them ours tonight.”
The audience roared. The combined bands joined forces for a raucous cover of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” With his tinted shades and slicked-back hair, mustachioed EODM frontman Jesse Hughes has a bit of Bono in him, though he plays a campier sort of rock ‘n’ roll preacher. He and his brothers-in-arms, including bearded guitarist Dave Catching, who has lived in New Orleans either full- or part-time for years, obviously relished this moment of rebirth.
Bono, The Edge, Mullen and Clayton then disappeared. In an extraordinary gesture, one of the world’s biggest bands left its stage, and its audience, in the hands of another band. Eagles of Death Metal charged through their own “I Love You All the Time,” which they’re using to raise funds for the Paris victims. Courtesy of U2, they had found their way back from the brink. They returned to the stage, and to Paris, in triumph. The next day, the healing process continued as they shared tears, and hugs, during a visit to the impromptu memorial outside the Bataclan.
They also expressed their gratitude via Facebook: “We want to offer our heartfelt thanks and appreciation for everything our brothers in U2 did for us in the aftermath of the November 13 attacks. They reminded us that the bad guys never take a day off, and therefore we rock ’n’ rollers cannot either … and we never will. We are incredibly grateful to U2 for providing us the opportunity to return to Paris so quickly, and to share in the healing power of rock ’n’ roll with so many of the beautiful people — nos amis — of this great city.”
When it comes to the healing power of rock ’n’ roll, U2 is without peer.