Just before 11 p.m. on May 26, 68-year-old Dennis Sheehan, a veteran tour manager who had crisscrossed the globe with such acts as Led Zeppelin, Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, gazed upon a familiar 10-foot-wide space. The backstage “quick change” area had just been vacated by the four members of U2 -- Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. -- as they climbed up the short stairway to perform a three-song encore at The Forum in Los Angeles. It was the first of a five-night stand and, according to onlookers, the burly Irishman who has worked with the band for 33 years was grinning from ear to ear.
Less than 12 hours later, Sheehan was found dead in his hotel room at the Sunset Marquis hotel (cause as yet unknown), rocking the foundation of a tour that already had weathered its share of setbacks, including Bono’s debilitating arm injury from a bike accident in November and The Edge’s opening-night fall offstage in Vancouver on May 14.
“As the new guy here, I feel a sense of family and unity,” U2 manager Guy Oseary tells Billboard. “This was a tragic, painful and sad event, but because they have a strong base built over many years, we are all holding hands. Dennis' spirit is with us every day, every minute.”
Indeed, said one crewmember following an afternoon prayer circle on May 27 led by Bono and a preacher, “Dennis was the heart and soul of the operation,” a sentiment that carried on to that night’s performance, where the frontman honored his longtime friend (read his tribute here) with the rarely played song “40” (the band also considered performing Led Zep’s “Kashmir,” says a source).
Suffice it to say, social media wasn’t a bastion of sensitivity, and it didn’t take long before Twitter and Facebook lit up with comments that the trek was “cursed.” In industry circles, wistful whispers of U2’s original manager, Paul McGuinness, who retired in 2013, made the rounds as insiders sized up the band’s current management team -- memories of the clunky iTunes-sponsored rollout of U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence, still fresh in many minds. For his part, Oseary, 42, who also reps Madonna, maintains, “I’m focused on all the positives."
And there are plenty. Most dates for U2’s Innocence + Experience trek, whose North American run ends July 23 and includes multi-night stints in New York and Chicago, are long sold-out, with The Forum fiver tallying 83,000 tickets on its own, according to Live Nation, whose senior executive Arthur Fogel has booked the band since the PopMart tour in 1997. Reviews for the two-act, three-hour show have been overwhelmingly positive, and if fan frenzy wasn’t enough to get the media excited, the L.A. concerts’ celebrity turnout certainly did.
The run’s success also is a score for The Forum, which underwent a $100 million renovation in 2013. Now a state-of-the-art facility, it was able to house U2’s elaborate production -- three stages, multimedia projections and a catwalk that stretches the length of the arena -- while also providing a sense of intimacy.
If there’s any band that can make a cavernous space feel small, it’s U2. The group’s record-shattering 360° tour (it grossed $736 million from 2009 to 2011) featured a massive spiderlike rig that allowed the band to play in the round. For I+E, the fans on the floor can control their own sight lines as they roam freely around the general-admission space.
It’s all in the name of engagement, says Oseary, and innovation is a big part of it. “You get one extreme with the technology, and other moments where the songs are showcased in their rawest form,” he explains.
U2’s current leg is projected to bring in $120 million, according to Billboard’s estimates, putting it in the box-office territory of road veterans The Rolling Stones, also touring this summer but playing stadiums. The proximity of the two groups’ routing brings to question whether 55-year-old Bono will, like 71-year-old Mick Jagger, still be looking for that onstage validation 20 years on. Says Oseary: “I’ve been a fan of this band since I was 13 and could never have imagined that, in 30 years, I’d be on the road every night on their best tour. I’m just happy to be an invited part of that family. And I hope that when Paul [McGuiness] sees it, he is proud and says, 'Good job.' That's all I can do. I don’t know what the future is. I just know that right now we’re moving it forward.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Hampp.
A version of this story will appear in the June 13 issue of Billboard.