U2 and the Rolling Stones: rock giants hit the road but take different paths

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While the Stones are happy to trade on a back catalogue largely compiled 40 years ago, the Irish rockers are pushing new material to prove their relevance

by Scott Christian, The Guardian

For those whose stores of musical nostalgia and classic rock band decadence are running on fumes, this summer's concert season should be a welcome restorative. Last week U2 launched their iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour at Vancouver's Rogers Arena in support of their latest album and iTunes Trojan horse, Songs of Innocence.

On 24 May, the Rolling Stones will land in San Diego to kick off their own North American tour. Titled the Zip Code tour, it's ostensibly a way to support their 9 June re-release of 1971's Sticky Fingers. That both bands are again battling for world tour supremacy is nothing new, but despite any similarities, the driving motivation behind each of these tours is remarkably different.

For the Stones, the Zip Code tour will be what any of their last three decades of live shows have been: a healthy dose of nostalgia, a chance to marvel at Keith Richards' apparent immortality, and a license to print money. After all, Mick, Keith, and Co's last real stab at recording relevance came with 1989's Steel Wheels. By 1994's Voodoo Lounge, it was pretty clear that any new material would be little more than an excuse to head out on the road. Though Keith recently hinted at the possibility of the Stones getting back into the studio, the fact that they are currently supporting an album more than four decades old shows that they have no qualms over exploiting their past. And why would they? They're the Rolling-frigging-Stones.

For U2, however, the tag of "nostalgia act" is apparently anathema. They don't see iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE as simply a roving greatest hits jukebox, or even as a sales pitch for Songs of Innocence. They see it as one more attempt at musical relevance. It's a tall order for a band comprising four men in their 50s; not that they haven't been down this road before. After the relative disappointment of 1997's Pop, U2 came firing back, at least commercially speaking, with 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind.

But this new round of relevance-chasing feels different somehow. Rather than letting the new songs speak for themselves, Bono has spent a lot of time talking about how the new songs will speak for themselves. And based on the number of Songs of Innocence tunes crammed into the first night's setlist, there is a desperation that we haven't quite seen from U2 before.

Ironically, the Stones method of sealing themselves in 1970s amber has actually improved their relevance over the last decade. Nostalgia is a powerful tool, and if you've achieved a certain level of status and swagger in your heyday, then you may as well just hang around long enough for the cycle to swing back in your favor. It worked for Sinatra, and for Johnny Cash, and it is currently working quite well for the Stones. Perhaps U2 could have gone this route post-ATYCLB - a dip through the dad-rock wasteland only to emerge on the other side as something retroactively cool and relevant. But they've always needed, sometimes baldly so, to be a thriving contemporary act rather than a nostalgic vintage one.

That the Stones can coast on past glory until the end of time is largely a testament to how cool they were, and how great their music was. U2 were never as cool as the Stones, even during their 80s and 90s peak, but their best songs were arguably every bit as good. And though U2 could easily coast on their past glories as well, it's their creative earnestness, that same earnestness that helped inspire classics like Where the Streets Have No Name and One, that keeps them moving forward rather than hunkering down to cash in on the past. Unlike cool, which is largely innate, earnestness has more to do with a need for expression. And that need to express doesn't necessarily subscribe to the expiration date imposed by popular culture, which has long been the artist's dilemma.

Ultimately, then, U2's only real crime is that they want to continue adding to the musical landscape in a popular culture that is at least willing to hear them out. It seems a reasonable desire for a group that's been creating for most of their lives. After all, just because the Stones are content to rest on their back catalogue doesn't mean U2 should have to be as well. But that also doesn't mean people will listen if they do create something new, or that they won't get mad should new songs appear in their iTunes folder unrequested. Which is the gamble when favoring creativity over legacy. In the end, it's really just two opposing philosophies on how to age as a big-time rock band - do you hang in there creatively until the bitter end, or do you kick back and polish your gleaming legacy for as long as you can?

© 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

Original article: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/may/22/u2-rolling-stones-tour-different-paths

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on May 23, 2015 3:05 AM.

Inside U2's 'Innocence' Spectacle: A Backstage Q&A With Bono and Edge was the previous entry in this blog.

Watch CBS Sunday Morning's video - U2: What they're still looking for is the next entry in this blog.

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