‘A Beautiful Day’: When U2, Green Day reopened the Superdome

Nola.Com by Alex Rawls (09-22-2016)

In 2006, New Orleanians were ready for the Superdome to reopen, and on Sept. 14, the excitement multiplied exponentially when U2 and Green Day announced that they would perform as part of the pre-game festivities Monday, Sept. 25 before the Saints played the first game back against the Falcons on Monday Night Football.

“The Saints are Coming” has been part of the team’s game day since Green Day and U2 debuted it that night, but it was a risky choice. The song wasn’t well known, and when Scottish punk band The Skids released the song in 1979, it was about a friend of singer Richard Jobson, who joined the British Army and was killed in Northern Ireland.

Then-Saints executive vice president Rita Benson LeBlanc told NOLA.com|The Times-Picayune in 2011, “Listening to the original, I had to cringe.“ All she heard was “an extremely harsh and barely understandable punk song.”

U2 guitarist The Edge loved the song and thought it would be perfect for Green Day. “I could hear them playing the song and knew it would work so well,” he told “Good Morning America”‘s Robin Roberts in 2006. The Edge had been involved in relief efforts for New Orleans musicians through Music Rising, and he wanted to do something public for New Orleans. When he thought of the song and Green Day, he had it. That summer, the groups convened at Abbey Road studios in London to record the song.

Ken Ehrlich produced the segment for ESPN. He has won Emmys for his production of The Grammys, so he had experience making live music translate into people’s living rooms.

Ehrlich in turn brought in New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival producer Quint Davis to wrangle the performance.

“I told the ESPN people that they couldn’t pull this thing off without Quint, and as it went along, they realized that as well,” Ehrlich said.

Davis and his Festival Productions team had to not only put two bands on stage in the middle of the Superdome, but he had to get that stage on the field, assembled, and safe with a few thousand people in front of it in the space of a commercial break. He and his staff spent days rehearsing every step of the process, including getting the musicians from their dressing room to the stage. 

“It’s what we’re built to do, but to do this one gig took the whole company,” Davis said.

When Davis’ team asked Big Sam Williams if he’d like to play, no one mentioned U2 or Green Day. He was told that “they” wanted to get a bunch of the locals to play the reopening of the Superdome. Williams lived in San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina, so he jumped at a chance to see musical friends and didn’t realize something was up until a couple of days later, when people were secretive.

The giveaway was practice—something New Orleans musicians joke about not doing. “We were going to rehearse the day before and the day of the show? What’s going on? Then they said it was going to be Green Day and U2. I was like, OK, this is awesome.“ 

Rebirth Brass Band were also on the gig, and Stafford Agee was one of the few members still in town at the time. He lived in his parents’ house without electricity, but he had a blanket, candles and a working restroom. “I was trying to get things back in order,” he said.

The New Orleans musicians, including Trombone Shorty and New Birth Brass Band, didn’t practice with the bands until 10 a.m. the morning of the game. U2 and Green Day sent Shorty horn charts written after the recording session, but “when we got on stage, we did what we do in New Orleans,” Shorty said. “The arrangement was a little bit different than what the guy had written. That call-and-response thing — that happened out of the blue.”

Everybody involved in the pre-game concert staged in the New Orleans Arena, where all the musicians shared one dressing room. Rebirth had played with enough major artists to know how to be cool. “They know what their superstar status is, but they want to be normal,” Agee says. “They don’t want droolers.”

Big Sam and most of the musicians hung around the Dome, but not Trombone Shorty. He stopped by the Verti Marte to pick up a shrimp po-boy on the way to his French Quarter apartment. He had known the show would happen longer than anybody else in New Orleans, but it wasn’t until that day that the emotion hit him.

“I remember thinking, ‘If this is any indication, New Orleans is going to be OK,’” he said. 

When showtime came and the bands made their way to the stage, they not only knew that they were a part of something special, they felt it. Stafford Agee says he never thinks about the crowd, but he couldn’t cut it out that night. “I don’t think any range of monitors can cover up the crowd in the dome,” he said.

“Once we got into the Superdome, all the lights were out,” Williams remembered. “You could feel the adrenaline from everyone rushing through your body. I don’t get nervous and I knew my part, but I was like, I hope I don’t crack up here.”

Everybody remembers “The Saints are Coming,” but the nine-minute mini-concert opened with Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” which segued into the opening verse of “The House of the Rising Sun.” That flowed into “The Saints are Coming,” and U2’s “Beautiful Day” served as a coda.

The New Orleans Saints had planned to incorporate “Beautiful Day” in their pregame activities before the U2/Green Day performance was announced. The Edge likened the performance to the moment at a jazz funeral when the body has been cut loose and the celebration begins. “That’s what this day and this moment will be I hope for New Orleans,” he told Robin Roberts. “The past is laid to rest. From now on, OK, we’ve got a lot of problems, but the now the party starts, and ‘Beautiful Day’ is a fitting song.”

Trombone Shorty remembers little about the set. He was startled to see “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, bass drummer for the Treme Brass Band, run out with the on-field audience, “and I got chills when Bono mentioned my name and Rebirth and New Birth’s name,” he said. “Hearing that crowd reaction, and being a proud representative of the city on the biggest stage at the moment. It was bigger than us musicians.”

When the set ended, the musicians were ushered back to the New Orleans Arena, where they could watch the game, but it wasn’t like being in the Dome. Most left. Big Sam went to his sister’s house to watch the end of the game, and Shorty met Kermit Ruffins on Frenchmen Street, where they watched highlights in a club.

Ten years later, “The Saints are Coming,” U2, Green Day and that night are inextricably linked to New Orleans and the team. Producer Ken Ehrlich has seen a lot of magical performances, but that night stands out for him.

“Often, I’m not able to appreciate the moment because we’re working, but this particular event remains vivid to me and was the whole time we were working,” he said.

“The picture of so many New Orleanians, back in the Dome for the first time since Katrina, and seeing the tears running down their cheeks is something I’ll never forget.”   

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