U2 at the Apollo: A Look Back

Original Story by Aaron J. Sams (2020-12-23)

In 2018 U2 took a small break from their Experience + Innocence tour and did a one night only special show at the Apollo for SiriusXM radio. With yesterday’s announcement that the fan club gift from U2.Com next year will be from that performance, we’ve taken a little look back at this special show.

The Apollo Theater, is a 1506 capacity venue in Harlem. It is a registered New York City Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places in the United States. Although built and operated earlier, it was opened as the Apollo Theater after a renovation in 1934. Many artists appeared on the Apollo stage over the years, and many got their start in the club, including Billie Holiday, the inspiration for U2’s song “Angel of Harlem.”

In the announcement of the show Bono was quoted, “New York City and the U2 band have a unique history. From the songs of Lou Reed, Billie Holiday and the Ramones that taught us how to listen, to the New Yorkers at our earliest U.S. shows who taught us how to play, the souls of New York and U2 have always been intertwined. The Apollo Theater is the heart of New York’s musical soul, and to finally be playing our songs on the same stage where James Brown begged ‘Please Please Please’ is not only a bucket list moment, it’s an incredible honor.”

SiriusXM has presented private concerts at the Apollo most years since 2010. Paul McCartney took the stage in 2010, followed by Bruce Springsteen in 2012, Metallica in 2013, James Taylor in 2015, Guns N’ Roses in 2017, U2 in 2018 and Lady Gaga in 2019. Pearl Jam was due to take the stage this year on March 26, but that concert was cancelled in light of the Covid-19 virus. The U2 concert was held at the same time that SiriusXM was hosting a limited U2 channel called “The U2 Experience.”

The U2 concert was special. It was the first time that the venue featured a general admission floor. The orchestra area was cleared of seating in advance of the show. The band walked out without an introduction, and without much fanfare, but it didn’t take long to get the party started. The show opened just after 8:30 with a trio of songs from their debut album that had the audience jumping, “I Will Follow,” “The Electric Co.” and “Out of Control.” The force of people jumping in unison had the whole theatre shaking, and surprised the camera crew present to record the show.

The show didn’t let up after that punch of adrenaline. The faster paced songs kept coming with “Red Flag Day,” “All Because of You,” “Vertigo,” “Elevation,” “Pride,” “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” before the band left the stage for a break. Not a slow song in the batch. “Pride” being played on 125th St had some special meaning, as the street is also named Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. “I Will Follow” featured a snippet of “Walking on the Moon,” “The Electric Co.” got it’s traditional “Send in the Clowns” snippet as well as “I Can See for Miles” and “Vertigo” included a snippet of “1969”. During “American Soul” Bono brings out his MacPhisto branded megaphone and climbs into the audience at the front of the stage. It was clear that the band were enjoying the performance as much as the fans pushed up next to the stage.

The show not only featured a number of songs from 2017’s Songs of Experience it also looked back and celebrated the 30th anniversary of 1988’s Rattle and Hum. Returning to the stage for the first encore, the crowd was awed as the backdrop separated revealing 13 musicians, the Sun Ra Arkestra horns and the Sex Mob Orchestra. The Arkestra has been performing for decades with an ever changing membership. U2 performed with them on three songs celebrating Rattle and Hum, “Desire,” “Angel of Harlem,” and “When Love Comes to Town.” The Arkestra also joined U2 for “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” which Bono dedicated to the recently departed Anthony Bordain. “Angel of Harlem” included a snippet of “Into the Mystic” and “When Love Comes to Town” included a snippet of “Romeo Had Juliette.” The additional musicians were arranged by longtime friend Gavin Friday and producer and collaborator Hal Willner. Before walking off after this encore, the band plan on taking a bow on stage, but The Edge just walks off in confusion, while the other three band members stand centre-stage looking to see where he went. He is quick to return and joins the band to wave and say goodnight to the audience.

After the four song set with the additional musicians the band once again left the stage, but returned to finish off with three additional songs. Up first was an acoustic version of “Every Breaking Wave” performed by Bono and The Edge, followed by full versions of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and “Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way.” Bono has troubles with the first verse of “Every Breaking Wave” and stops the song and gets The Edge to restart. The full show was about 90 minutes from start to finish.

Bono had performed at the Apollo in May 2012, making a guest appearance at the Jazz Foundation of America’s benefit concert and performing “Angel of Harlem.” The band also shot the video for “Angel of Harlem” partially on stage at the Apollo back in the late 1980s.

The 2018 concert was by invitation only, with contests run through SiriusXM and U2.Com. The show was announced on May 15, 2018, less than a month before the concert, on the Howard Stern show on SiriusXM. “Experiencing U2 in the intimate setting of the legendary Apollo is a rare opportunity and will make for a historic evening,” said Scott Greenstein, President and Chief Content Officer of SiriusXM. “It’s the first time U2 has played a New York City venue of this size in almost two decades, and we couldn’t be more excited to offer our subscribers the opportunity to be part of this singular musical event.” It “was also announced at the same time that the concert would also air on U2’s limited SiriusXM channel “The U2 Experience” following the show.

Contests included:

  • An email invite to all SiriusXM subscribers to win tickets.
  • Subscribers prior to the announcement of the U2 station (April 25, 2018) also were given the opportunity to win airfare, hotel stay and a pair of tickets
  • Listeners to “The U2 Experience” could call in when hearing “Angel of Harlem” on the air for a chance to win. The 10th caller each time the song played won.
  • Additional contests were run via SiriusXM and SiriusXM.ca via their social media channels
  • U2.Com had their own contests where subscribers participated via social media and submitted photos in their favourite U2 shirts
  • U2.Com also had an entry via their site for 25 pairs of tickets, which asked users to answer “What’s the U2 song that captures – for you – innocence or experience ? And why?”

A number of celebrities were invited as well including from the world of sports, NASCAR Driver Jeff Gordon, tennis legend John McEnroe, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Commissioner of the NHL Gary Bettman, New York Met Noah Syndergaard. Models such as Ingrid Vandebosch, Kaia Gerber, Cindy Crawford, and Christy Turlington, Camille Kostek were in attendance. From the world of music, musicians Harry Belafonte, Steven “Little Steven” Van Zandt, Dierks Bentley, Bon Jovi, and Matt Nathanson were present. Also in attendance were actors Lupita Nyong’o, John M. Cusimano, Gina Gershon and Edward Burns; comedian Nikki Glaser; director Darren Aronofsky; and media personalities Savannah Guthrie, Andy Cohen, Rachael Ray, Donny Deutsch, Perri Peltz, and Carson Daly. A number of people in attendance worked for SiriusXM including CEO Jim Meyer.

Early in the day the band members stopped to say hello to fans gathered at the back of the theatre waiting for them. While they waited a small line started mid-afternoon for admission at the front of the building. SiriusXM and the venue had security in place starting at 4pm, monitoring the line as it wound down 125th St., to ensure the line did not block off local businesses. Fans were pre-checked prior to entering the venue, and checked off on a list of names. Contest winners via U2.Com were given a special card which allowed them to line up in a separate line once the venue opened. That line took fans to the door closest to the stage, and also opened a few minutes before the other lines to enter the venue.

Once checked off on the list, fans were given a lanyard and printed badge which provided entry to the venue. The lanyard was printed with a repeating U2 logo and the SiriusXM logo. A wristband was also added during entry, and fans were given a specially printed U2 T-shirt as they went into the theatre. The ticket stub for the event was punched as one picked up the free t-shirt. The t-shirt featured the same image of the band that features on the lanyard, and show posters. The wristbands given out were red, white, or black, and designated different access levels to the venue. The black wristband included access to an after party. Additionally a hand stamp saying “Apollo” designated that attendees were of legal age to drink.

Attendees were let into the theatre at 7:30, about an hour before the show began. Prior to the show a mix of songs played while the crew set up instruments on the stage, including a mix of songs by Kendrick Lamar, Amy Winehouse and Gil Scott-Heron. After the show, many fans waited around outside of the venue for SiriusXM organized buses to return to Times Square and other locations.

The concert was aired on U2’s own SiriusXM station, “The U2 Experience” a couple of days after the event on June 13, 2018. The first airing was at 5pm ET. The show featured all of the tracks played in concert with the exception of “Red Flag Day.” The show was re-run multiple times during the remainder of the two month run of “The U2 Experience” and has since been replayed on other SiriusXM Channels. Of note, one song, “Vertigo” has also been played as a standalone track from the concert on SiriusXM, and also was released via YouTube as a standalone track for promotion of the station and the concert, in advance of the full show being aired. (See above) The concert returned to SiriusXM on March 17, 2020, this time in a new edited form. “Red Flag Day” was still absent from the airing, but additional changes have also been made. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” now followed “Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way” at the end of the broadcast, instead of the reverse order in which they had been played. It was this new edit of the show which was used when U2 X-Radio launched, and was aired a number of times in July 2020 on the new station. (This last airing, without “Red Flag Day” is an 80 minute recording which would fit on a single CD).

Bootlegs of this show exist, in vinyl, CD and DVD formats. The audio for these bootlegs is taken from the SiriusXM station airings, and is the equivalent in sound quality to a low quality mp3. None of these physical releases to date are official, and all use the lesser quality audio stream from the SiriusXM station.

The Apollo concert was also filmed with 360° cameras, for a possible web project that has never been released. We have been told that the audience was jumping so much that the vibration of the theatre caused problems for the footage done with the 360° cameras, especially the one located on the stage. Traditional video footage of the show exists as well, with U2 releasing one minute clips of “When Love Comes to Town“ and “Angel of Harlem.” (See above)

On December 22, 2020, U2 announced that the 2021 subscriber gift from U2.Com would be an audio CD version of the Apollo concert. Although the full track list has not been announced some edits are expected to get the show down to one CD. It has been announced that there will also be an accompanying download set. The first downloads and the full track listing will be made available in early 2021. But if you are interested you can subscribe to the site for a year for $50. (It is a $40 charge if you are a current subscriber, a special “premium package” also includes the previous year’s gift.) Please note, that although you can subscribe now, gifts usually ship later in the year. Last years gifts started arriving in June. A look at previous U2 fan club gifts can be found here. Graphics accompanying the announcement of the subscriber gift suggest that the CD will be called “Live at the Apollo: For One Night Only”.

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