On U2's current tour, each show is a feat of engineering, construction, and precision–and there can be no mistakes. The cornerstone of the production is the world's largest mobile video screen. Seniorhelpline had exclusive access to the band's stadium shows in New Jersey.
DAY 4: 9:45 p.m.
Four songs in. The people at the barricades had to come to the stadium on two separate occasions to secure this spot. The diehards. The people whose backs are lists of old U2 tour dates; the people draped in Irish flags. They came to MetLife Stadium last night, when everything was barely set up—the spotlights yet to be tested, the sound mix yet to be perfected—just to get a number inscribed on their wrists in permanent marker. And they came back today—doors opened at 5 p.m., but they were here long before that, because that is who they are—and presented their markings, the lower the better, to an employee of Live Nation, the massive touring company, and were walked in to grab a choice position at the 20-yard-line barricades directly in front of the drum kit. U2 started the show on the 45-yard line, but four songs in they're taking center stage for the main event: , their first huge record, is 30 years old and on this tour they're playing it in full. The diehards are ready to lose their minds. Their numbered hands are poised to clap, and make raised fists, and wave cellphones into the jet stream of the biggest touring band in the world.
But the screen makes everyone equal. The screen means it doesn't matter where you sit. U2 has always been about equal rights for all.
The screen is 196 feet wide and 45 feet tall. It fills the end zone and red zone of the north end of the field, blotting out entire sections of stands. It's the most advanced touring screen in the world, built specifically for U2: 11.4 million pixels of almost unnerving 8K clarity. It's nearly all carbon fiber, light and strong—so much carbon fiber that a spool of it the width of a sidewalk would be four miles long. U2 wanted it even bigger, but they realized anything wider wouldn't fit in the football stadiums where they would play. Football stadiums.
As the band plays the first ethereal chords and pounding bass drum that start the first song of the album, "Where the Streets Have No Name," the screen explodes with light: soaring black-and-white footage of the empty two-lanes of the American West.
It's a glorious moment. The diehards suddenly find themselves stuck in the front row of a movie theater—still not a bad spot, in this theater—while the people in the cheap seats (which are not cheap at all) experience a stunning panorama. Equal rights for all.
Eric Geiger, the band's chief LED engineer, wearing all black and a headset over the top of his ball cap, is at the front of the audiovisual booth, at the edge of the singing and swaying people on the floor of the stadium, 40 yards back from the stage. Rather than bask in the glow of the movie, he's scouring the 2,418-inch flat screen for anything that looks off. A full terabyte of data runs across the screen every minute, and it all has to be perfect.
Thirty seconds into the song, a voice cuts through Geiger's headset, hard to hear over the humming organ and rabid guitar riffs. It's another crew member positioned out in the crowd. He thinks he's noticed something—stage right, high over Bono's right shoulder. Geiger's eyes scan from the outside of the stage. He sees it now, too. Some kind of data glitch. It's not big, but it's not right. A flicker, not even a millisecond long, two or three times now. And if it gets worse, it could potentially shut down an entire section of the screen, ruining the first song of the album.
Geiger gets on the radio. Backstage, screen tech Maarten Deschacht is responsible for the right half of the screen. He grabs a limp pile of nylon webbing hanging from a truss and glances upward toward the faulty panel, his hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. From the back of the screen he can't see exactly which one it is. The harness swirls into shape around his body as he pulls straps up his legs and over his shoulders, dipping and shimmying to get it to settle in the right places. You want to get it right when you're going to be suspended 40 feet in the air.
You want to get it right, period. Not only for the fans—but for the fans, sure. And not only for the band—but of course for the band, who is playing. You want to get it right because this is what you've worked for. Hours and hours over months and months. Planning. Practice. Preparation. It was all for these next few seconds. To do a job like this right—or any job, really, be it the big sale, the 50-meter freestyle, the hit song in front of 55,000 people—you have to love the preparation itself, too. It's just that if Deschacht messes this up, that's what everyone will remember.
Geiger is in his ear telling him where to go. Telling him to get up there before the fans have a chance to notice.
The chatter on the radio hasn't gotten past Rocko Reedy, the stage manager, who's come over to watch Deschacht climb. If it's happening on his stage, Rocko makes sure it's done right. He makes sure Deschacht is wearing a yo-yo, also known as a fall arrester—even though Deschacht will be hooked between a tower of steel trussing and a grid of carbon fiber, interlocking couplings, and cabling, so if he fell, the damage would be done long before he hit the floor.
Rocko is not the kind of guy who worries, but somewhere in the back of his mind is 1997's PopMart Tour, the first time U2 played with an LED screen bigger than God's imagination. At RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., it poured rain and the screen went haywire. Rocko and the crew spent days going through tens of thousands of individual pieces, applying silicone waterproofing by hand. They had to cancel a show.
In three days, this screen needs to be in Cleveland. A week after that, London.
Tools hang from Deschacht's harness. In each hand, a metal hook, for gripping. He starts his climb. It's a practiced dance, a three-step: Hook, feet, hands, hook, feet, hands, he crawls up the back of the giant screen. He's careful not to bang a knee into a support strut or knock the waves of wiring that flow out of one panel and into another. His boots keep finding higher rungs, a round pressure on the soft instep of his foot. Rocko watches him get smaller. The strut in Deschacht's hand reverberates with the roaring sound of the crowd.
There are 55,000 people in the house tonight. They've come to the stadium, a few miles outside of New York City in northern New Jersey, from the Hudson Valley, from the five boroughs, from urban and rural Jersey. From Philly. People from points east fought post-work traffic through tunnels or across bridges and paid $30 to park in lots as vast and indistinguishable as the meadowlands around the stadium. Fans from Manhattan and Queens and Brooklyn paid $11 to ride New Jersey Transit trains out of Penn Station and made the god-awful transfer in Secaucus, where everybody gets off one train and onto another, the whole time able to see MetLife Stadium, so large it seems to be an arm's length away even though it's still a ten-minute ride and another ten-minute walk just to get started going through security. The people on the floor paid $70 to make that slog, just to be here in this house with this band, its spectacle, and these songs. If there is one way to fail them, it's to break the magic of the show with a flickering screen, so that the sing-a-longs and the cheering catch in people's throats and, for a second, the roar stops.
Deschacht keeps climbing.
He still doesn't know what he's dealing with. It's 40 feet up in the air before he reaches the problem area. He moves his metal safety hooks, getting them in position to let him work, and tugs each one. No give. Satisfied, he straightens his legs and leans back—an unnerving feeling, pulling away from the wall. The harness straps pull taut under his thighs, digging into legs not used to sitting. Less than a minute after getting the first radio call, he's ready to work.
Geiger hustles from the AV booth, an upstream salmon through the crowd, to the rear of the stage—he's standing at the base of the screen, on the band's side (out of the audience's view). He looks up under the brim of his hat at the towering light show above him. Eighteen panels have the flicker. If it were more he'd worry it was a power problem, but this looks like a data cable. Maybe the bass shook one loose. Then Geiger does something incredibly low-tech: He reaches his arm under the screen directly beneath the problem area, so that from high above, Deschacht sees Geiger's white arm standing out amongst the black carbon fiber. He shuffles to his left, aligning with Geiger's arm. Deschacht is in front of the 16th of 100 columns of panels. He and Geiger both look at maps of the screen, and come to the same conclusion: It has to be the connection from panel F16 to F17. The only thing to do is replace the cable. The panel will go black for five seconds, maybe three if he's fast.
Bono sings, "It's all I can do . . ." and the song's final notes fade. Deschacht has one shot. Geiger's on the radio, watching the screen. "3, 2, 1 . . ."
The song ends, the screen goes black. Deschacht yanks the connection between the two panels, removes the cord, and rushes connectors into accepting ports. The band bursts into "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." The screen roars into life. No flicker, not a single dark LED.
DAY 5: 11:15 a.m.
The next morning, a woman stands at the loading-dock security gate. She's wearing a maroon Eastpak backpack and carrying a lunch bag. She has removed her lanyard, which is strung with badges and a BIC lighter, and taken her cigarettes out of her back pocket. But the guard balks at a long cylindrical item: a camping chair. He doesn't seem to think it's dangerous. He just seems skeptical.
"You've gotta get comfy if you're going to stay here all night," she says, dropping the lanyard and cigarettes in a plastic bowl. Her black tee says, "Steel Crew." She's a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 632. She walks through, takes back her bags, badges, cigarettes, and chair, and heads inside. Most of the IA will be working until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest.
Six hours before doors open, it's 79 degrees and feels hotter. MetLife Stadium, home to the New York Giants and New York Jets, is a 2.1-million-square-foot paean to shared experience, written in concrete, steel, and cinder block. It can hold 28,000 cars and 90,000 people. Discounting NFL games, in six of the last seven years, its events—international soccer matches, Beyoncé, Monster Jam—made more money than any stadium in the world. And it belongs to Local 632—they work every stage show that comes through, under the direction of the touring crew. And they're starting to trickle in. They know exactly when to arrive, they know exactly what they need to carry in to help them survive the next 30 hours.
Yellow vest, sunglasses, red hard hat.
Leather loop with hard hat and claw hammer.
Three boxes Girl Scout shortbread cookies.
64-ounce bottle French Vanilla Coffee-Mate.
One guy brings a red-white-and-blue cooler, about as big as one person might want to carry.
"What kind of drinks?" asks a security guard wearing aviator sunglasses.
"What kind of drinks?" the guy says. "I don't drink alcohol."
"I'm not worried about you drinking alcohol," says Aviators. "I'm worried about me drinking alcohol." He lets the guy through.
Then Chak Lawson arrives. A veteran guy. But the guard takes one look at his badge and Lawson gets the freeze-out. Lawson is a thickset guy with short brown hair that's gelled up in the front so it crests like a wave that drips perspiration down his forehead. His mother was a roadie for Little Richard and Chuck Berry; his birth certificate is an IA union card. He's been in for 19 years. But he's wearing a yellow triangular local staff badge, and what he needs is a purple triangular local staff badge. Yellow was for yesterday's show. Lawson steps out of the security line and starts anxiously swiping at his phone, trying to find someone already inside to bring him out the right badge. He's agitated, and at first it's hard to understand why. He's expecting to be working for the next day and half straight. What's a few extra minutes waiting for a pass?
But a few extra minutes is everything. Within any given show on a tour, the size of the audience is limited by the number of seats and the amount of space taken up by the stage. To get more people (or money), you've got to book more shows. And to book more shows, you've got to minimize the amount of time between them. While a few minutes here and there doesn't seem like much, when each show is a weeklong production, it adds up.
Lucky for Lawson, his coworkers start to arrive by the dozen, and they understand, like he does, why he has to get inside now: There's a job to be done. The larger the gathering crowd of Lawson's compadres insisting that his purple pass is just inside, the harder it is for security to keep him out. After all, they've been here five days in a row now. It took two days to build out the steel that supports the stage, another day to build the stage, and yesterday they put on a show. Local 632 does lights, rigging, heavy lifting—everything but perform.
Now they're overwhelming the security booth.
Radio, screwdriver, awl.
Green tool belt, black claw hammer, camo Oakland Raiders bucket hat.
Pink whale-shaped bubble machine.
Lawson gets in.
DAY 5: 2:00 p.m.
Jimmy Villani's office is almost at the end of the concourse—the only thing past here is catering, and that's six floors up. Jimmy is the foreman for the local IA. To put on a show at MetLife, you go through him, and this office, which is the size of a walk-in closet. Its walls are white cinder block. No windows. There's a desk and a table covered with stacks of papers, hard hats, pill bottles, tape, a newspaper. A picture of the first Joshua Tree Tour, from 1987, is taped to the wall. Jimmy's got himself a chair but it's unclear if he ever sits down—he's got an energy to him, and as he says, his job is to always be thinking, imagining problems, playing the angles in his head. Fi little problems as they arrive.
Rocko Reedy walks in. The stage manager. "Here's Rocko!" Jimmy says. "Come in here, man!" Jimmy has a strong Jersey accent, but he always sounds a bit out of breath, which softens it.
Rocko's got a windburned face and long blond hair, like a surfer who refuses to come in. They call him the King of Gaffer Tape. He goes through about 20 miles of fluorescent yellow tape each tour, using it to mark routing backstage, label loading areas, and draw lanes for road cases to get to the trucks.
"Shirts," Rocko says. "Who do I count those with?"
"Bring them in here and count them with Crawford," Jimmy says, motioning to the room next door. "Crawford!" Crawford materializes, and Jimmy has him pull a rainbow stack of shirts from a stash and go next door with Rocko. There are 12 departments of union guys—lighting, carpentry, sound, and on and on—and each wears a different color so they're easy to spot, especially during load-out, when 180 International Alliance people will be working.
Another knock. "Come in," Jimmy barks. Now it's his little brother, Joey, the union's business manager.
"He was just saying dressing-room crew comes in at 9," Joey says, more staid than his brother. "Now, I didn't have that. Those people may be on the show." They'd had the dressing-room guys scheduled to come in at 10:30.
Jimmy just laughs. "Listen, listen, listen. Who—"
"Rocko," Joey says. "He's next door."
Jimmy and Joey are from Cliffside Park, New Jersey, and all their guys are locals. Rocko got his start in Chicago, and his team is a polyglot band of specialists. It's a diverse crew running this show. But there's an underlying sameness to the way they all view, assess, and solve problems. A lot of the IA guys also work movies and TV shows that film in New York. When MetLife was built—maybe eight miles from his house—Jimmy would still sometimes take gigs in New York City. Cliffside Park is just south of the George Washington Bridge, a major traffic bottleneck that crosses the Hudson River from New Jersey into Manhattan. "That's what got me to stop the movies," he says. "I used to hate—on the way home, I can see where I live on the top of the cliffs there, but I couldn't get there. So no more."
In the pursuit of perfection, every inefficiency becomes a problem to be solved. Stagehands, roadies—maybe they get into this line of work because they're fans. Jimmy certainly keeps mementos from all kinds of past gigs, including from U2's first American tour, when he worked their show at the Palladium, a legendary New York City venue. He can still name the opening acts. But like any job, once they're in it, it becomes a thing of discipline. A craft. Fandom alone will not sustain excellence.
Jimmy heads next door, right as MetLife runs a fire-alarm test. The tone on the PA is deafening, but Jimmy and Rocko negotiate, unfazed. They might not even need words. Jimmy's going to pull a few people from the show and call a few people in early. Simple. Next problem.
DAY 5: 2:30 p.m.
Maarten Deschacht, the screen tech who scaled the screen last night, stands on the stage, staring upward, saluting the screen to block out the afternoon sun. Today, another screen tech, Justin Welch, wears the harness, hanging through a hole of missing panels. The cable was enough to get them through the show last night, but when they couldn't re-create the problem this afternoon, they decided to replace the panels with two of the 24 spares they take to every tour date.
Deschacht stretches both hands upward, squinting, to receive the frame that held the damaged panels. He grabs it in both arms and makes his way off the stage, high-stepping over low stage lights. Welch muscles the replacement into place, completing the facade. He seats the cables, double-checking that everything is as it should be. They will not have the same problem two shows in a row.
Satisfied, he collects his tools and descends. Slipping the harness off his Harley-Davidson T-shirt, he plops down on a closed box of cabling and packs a lip of tobacco, empty Coke bottle in hand.
Deschacht types at a small laptop in front of the indistinguishable faces of video machines. He has to tell the screen's software that they replaced panels F16 and F17 so that the new panels know where they are. Four massive processors as tall as men take it all in. Each can handle only a small portion of the screen. This bank powers stage right.
The screen is designed for in situ adjustments. Geiger, the engineer, helped make sure it would actually work on the road. He made sure the company that made the screen, PRG, added brightly colored handles to the panels so he could communicate to new crews in each stadium what he needed them to do. The carbon-fiber tubing that holds it up also braces it against the wind, and collapses into itself, nearly flat, for easy travel. A conventional screen this size would pack into seven semitrucks. This one packs into four, shaving $225,000 off the tour's bottom line.
After updating the panel configuration, Deschacht closes the laptop and flips the breakers, shutting the screen down. They'll turn it on again at 4:30 to run some tests. Then they'll test it again before , the opening act, get on stage—then again right after they get off. After that, they'll keep their harnesses handy.
As Deschacht and Welch meander out from behind the screen, Rocko's voice booms out of the sound system. The King of Gaffer Tape leads a band who plays music for an afternoon sound check. They do this at every stadium, a touring band with no fans.
A voice from the AV booth, unamplified, strains to counter Rocko's.
Joe O'Herlihy is yelling at Sam O'Sullivan, U2's drum tech—the drummer in Rocko's sound-check band—who bangs away at the drums, beginning to really feel it. Joe O concentrates on the drum sound and adjusts one fader, which slides under his touch, smooth, with just enough resistance to make sure it settles down where he wants it. Hemming the sound. In just two hours, the diehards with their numbered wristbands will start to pour in. These are the final adjustments to the stadium sound.
Joe O looks like he hasn't shaved his great white beard since he met U2 at a Cork College music festival when they were all teenagers. He and two assistants work in front of a mi board the size of a deli counter, an organized chaos of hundreds of blinking and flashing buttons, glowing screens, rows of faders and dials to adjust the input of 150 individual microphones. Joe O's guys spent months before the tour poring over every song the band might play, every sound from every video. Before every show, they look over stadium schematics, searching for trouble areas: glass scoreboards that could reflect sound, prevailing winds, stadium designs that could mess with cable lengths. Once they're in the venue, they get Rocko's band to pluck out some notes so they can adjust the faders, fine-tune, update the presets. They tune the stadium by ear—the crowd is human, so the tuners should be human.
Satisfied with the instruments, Joe O dismisses Rocko and the band, and they rush off the stage to get to other work. Joe O stays in the booth. He cues up a prerecorded bit the band plans to use tonight.
John F. Kennedy's voice echoes through the stadium: "We shall be as a city upon a hill . . ."
Joe O plays it again.
"We shall be as a city upon a hill—"
"—a city upon a hill."
Joe O makes minute adjustments each time.
"—the eyes of all people are upon us . . ."
A few last adjustments and Joe O makes a call on his mic. "Okay," he says. "Presets are set for 'Presidents.' "
DAY 5: 4:15 p.m.
A golf cart careens out the loading-dock ramp and into the security area. There's a kennel rigged to its back, and a dog inside barks incessantly. MetLife has its own bomb-sniffing dogs. So do the New Jersey State Police, who have a precinct on the campus and a control center inside the stadium. Their SWAT team is pulling in in black SUVs. The long guns—intimidating black rifles at the ready. Most of the time law enforcement wants to be subtle, but the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, was scarcely more than a month ago.
This is the last respite before the fans arrive. Tucked behind semitrailers humming with diesel generators, outside but sheltered, a young woman runs the three washers and three dryers the band takes on the road. She appears to be flirting with a rigger. Three crew members sit on a concrete wall just inside the loading-dock gate, paying the dogs and the forks and the long guns no mind. Each is having a smoke, looking at his phone.
DAY 5: 6:40 p.m.
Rocko has a collection of guitars he'll never sell, gifts from bands he's put on stage, signed—at Rocko's request—with vulgar, atrocious salutations. Today is The Lumineers' last show with U2. They're not going to Cleveland. They've given Rocko a guitar, which he brings to their dressing room so they can share a last moment before they take the stage and he enters the chute of nonstop stage managing, set changing, and load-out. "Dearest Rocko," one band member has written, "Please eat sh*t and promptly thereafter die."
Outside, the diehards are at their chosen spots and fans are starting to fill the stands. When Rocko ushers The Lumineers onstage at 7 p.m., the arena is at maybe one-third capacity. Throughout the venue, in matching uniforms, no more than 30 feet away from one another, security guards line the barricades. As the band works through a 12-song set, men and women in orange shirts wander the field, looking for anyone too rowdy, or too green from the beer or the heat. Dozens of sets of eyes look out from beneath the stiff brims of Stetsons—state police officers, their sharp uniforms slightly undermined by orange-and-blue earplugs.
Not 45 seconds after The Lumineers' last note fades, stagehands start pushing down road cases. A minute and a half in, the band's bass drum, with its casually imperfect spray-painted "The Lumineers," gets walked off. Phil Andriopoulos is the IA forklift operator. Five lifts: one to move a piano and four for heavy candelabra set dressing. In the waning moments of The Lumineers' set he tucked a cup of coffee into some nook or cranny of the stadium wall, put on his sunglasses, cracked a Lipton Brisk, and moved the forklift into position almost directly below the end of stage left. Now he raises the fork and pivots the lift so its body is perpendicular to the ramp. It's basically the width of the corridor; the fork extends over the ramp like a center fielder trying to snag a foul ball. Stagehands roll The Lumineers' piano right up to the edge. Andriopoulos extends the arms, comes up under the piano, pivots, and lowers it down. Fewer than five minutes have elapsed. In fewer than 20, their gear is gone.
Now the fans really pour in. The back of the floor has food stands and beer stands and a merch booth and they all grow tentacles of people. The crowd massed against the barriers starts to expand backward. In the middle of the pack, Willie Williams dances like a father at a neighborhood barbecue. Williams has sat down with the band to design every U2 stage since 1982.
Before U2 walks out, Williams shimmies up the stairs of the AV booth. He scoots past Smasher Desmedt, who mixes the video for the screen, live, from a portfolio of feeds sent to his workstation, and dances next to Alex Murphy, the man coordinating the show's spotlights. Williams and Murphy spent four weeks of dark nights in Barcelona with an empty stadium and stage, planning all the movements of lights. The spotlights that track the musicians are operated remotely by techs with joysticks. "Stay with them all night long," Murphy tells whatever local crew he's working with. "It's like you're trying to assassinate him." When the stage lights go dark, operators switch to night vision.
Williams floats around during a concert, watching the crowd, moving among them to feel their energy. It's how he knows if the show works. But tonight he'll start up here, dead center in a folding chair. Best seat in the house.
And then, at the precise right moment, U2's drummer, Larry Mullen Jr., walks downstage to the drum kit. Everything is perfectly choreographed: He sits down, puts in his in-ear monitor, and grabs his sticks. Mullen's famous drum-corps staccato that begins "Sunday Bloody Sunday" cuts through the stadium. The crowd screams as the haunting guitar lick crashes over them. When they hear an unseen Bono sing, "I can't believe the news today . . ." they absolutely lose it.
Joe O mixes the sound live. All the work at sound check was just a baseline. It's colder now, so the air is different, and there's been a major change in the stadium's acoustics: Hard plastic seats have been replaced with soft human bodies.
The screen looms dark behind the band. Smasher will shortly join Joe O in the AV booth's live mix of the show. He has his own set of faders, but his inputs are the cameras dotted across the stage and stadium. A bank of monitors shine on him. Some show prerecorded videos; others give him live footage. His eyes will dart between the screens, picking the most compelling footage. For two hours, he'll find the moments, add special effects, stitch together 200 linear feet of video—but not yet.
At the end of the second song, with the screen dark and stage lights minimal, Bono pauses to offer a benediction: "Our prayer this evening is that we have one of those epic nights. That we all remember, hold on to. That we let go of the useless and offer ourselves to be useful. That's our prayer," he says. "Simple enough."
At this moment, almost everyone in the stadium is working. The band is playing. Smasher is making final prep for video and Joe O is mi sound. Security patrols the stands and Rocko patrols the backstage. The local IA who were rolled off the show and called in early are in U2's dressing room, pulling down temporary walls and taking couches out to waiting trucks. Bono asks Willie Williams to kill the spotlights—not that the audience has any idea who "Willie" is—and says, "Let's see if the stars come out this summer night." The audience obliges him. MetLife Stadium fills with thousands of lit cellphones. It looks like a bowl of night sky.
As the next song comes to an end, the four band members stand together at the very front of the stage, right at the 45-yard line, and look out over the crowd. A blood-orange light starts to glow at their backs. One by one they turn and walk upstage. The light gets brighter. When they assemble at center stage, four tiny silhouettes under the black outline of a giant Joshua tree, the entire screen glows red as a new sun on the horizon—every inch perfect—and The Edge starts to play.
DAY 5: 11:45 p.m.
Two hours and 10 minutes after the show began, the show ends. A MetLife electrician throws on the stadium lights. Security guards in orange push the last of the fans out to the crowded parking lots and waiting trains, which will take them home to their houses and apartments and sleeping kids and babysitters who need a ride home. Directly behind the guards, stagehands descend on the field in hard hats and a spectrum of colored shirts.
Then the forklifts come. The joints of the white plastic tiles that have been laid down to protect the field pop as they speed through. They push across the field, somehow missing scurrying reflective vests, until they are arrayed in front of the stage in militaristic formation: three stage left, three stage right, one each in front and rear of the AV booth. And they wait. On the stage, roadies snap shut large plastic Pelican cases and roll them away on casters. The main stage, which turns out to have been the second of two levels of scaffolding and catwalks, collapses under union supervision. The screen's rows and columns drop in segments as the lowest panels are removed and clear like the bottom rows of a game of Tetris. Stagehands begin to push the heaviest items to the front of what's left of the stage. Suddenly, one of the forklifts jumps forward, fork extended, and the stage presents a piece of itself, neatly packed—a box of steel trussing. The forklift speeds off to the loading dock. Then another lift darts in.
Another. Another. Another.
Alex Murphy hustles through row after row of low stage lights, disconnecting them from their mounts.
An audio tech impatiently pushes the button to lower an enormous set of hanging speakers, just high enough to slide a dolly underneath. The speakers roll out in stacks of four, nearly six feet high.
On the stadium floor two camera operators disassemble a camera boom, chucking loose bolts into a rock climber's chalk bag.
At the loading dock, road cases arrive in a constant stream. Rocko has done up the floor with fluorescent yellow lane markings. He's a human interchange, recognizing cases on sight and directing pushers to the appropriate lane.
One forklift is positioned at the end of the row of loading-dock bays. It's completely stationary—except for its fork. Pushers bring stackable road cases; it stacks them; and they wrangle them onto trucks.
Inside the wall-less steel skeleton of the AV booth, workers struggle to push boxes of video equipment up a single step to a waiting forklift.
The stage dissolves into boxes packed with varying lengths of steel pipe.
Out of the maelstrom comes Chak Lawson, looking cheery, hair still in place. "Now the hard part starts," he says. Thirteen hours into his shift.
DAY 6: 3:00 a.m.
The production equipment is all on the road. It took four hours to pack up 30 trucks. The road crew showers in MetLife's home locker rooms and makes its way out of the stadium. These last few hundred yards, to the line of silver buses—already warmed up—might be the most exhausting of the day.
People pack in, and with a familiar diesel grumble the buses start to move. There is some chatting, but nothing too deep after a 15-hour shift. Mostly, people sit and drink a beer, something to relax a bit and come down. VH1 Classic is a favorite on the TVs. Rocko just eats some food from the lounge at the front of his bus, grabs a bottle of water, and heads for a bunk in the back. Sometimes, at home, it's too quiet to sleep. He's too used to the rattle and hum of an engine.
DAY 6: 6:00 p.m.
The local International Alliance outlasts the roadies at MetLife, breaking down steel, but now the steel trucks are loaded and gone, Local 632 have cleared out, and all that's left is the result of a perfect show: a still meadowland of fake grass, a forest of empty seats.
At FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, the roadies and the Cleveland locals have almost finished their load-in, but they're on a break. Thunderstorm. The AV booth is ready, the speakers are hung, and the screen is up, but no one works when there's lightning in the vicinity. But the lightning will pass and the rain will end, and if it doesn't, they've got all kinds of backup plans.
This story appears in the October 2017 issue.