Well before U2 became the biggest band in the world, they found an enthusiastic audience at the Fountain Street Church. On December 5, 1981, just eight months after U2’s first American show, the band played one of Grand Rapids’ most mythologized concerts.
“At the time, they were just another up-and-coming band,” longtime WLAV DJ Stephen Aldrich recalls. That evening, Aldrich worked on the stage crew for concert promoters Alan Bashara and Bill Breidenfeld. The promoters took a chance booking the little-known act.
Hedging their bets, they placed U2 at Fountain Street, a venue that held 1500 and had a history of hosting big name acts. The likes of Frank Zappa, King Crimson, and Ella Fitzgerald played there. To cut costs, the promoters used their own stage crew and relied on the church’s youth group, the Fountain Club, to sell tickets.
Grand Rapids rock station WLAV promoted the show by playing the band’s new single, “Gloria.” The song opened the show. Lead singer Bono interrupted WLAV DJ Tim Steele’s introduction, grabbed his microphone, and announced “this is ‘Gloria,’ 2-3-4” before kicking into the song.
The hour-long set featured songs from the group’s first two albums, Boy and October. The Edge’s jagged guitars and Bono’s anthemic vocals echoed off the stone and stained glass of the cathedral, known locally as a progressive, non-denominational house of worship. U2 closed the evening with a two-song encore that featured boisterous crowd participation.
“I’d always heard about the Fountain Street Church and their great shows from my older brothers,” Steve Secor said. Then a high school freshman, Secor scored tickets from WLAV on the day of the show and went with his older brother, who suggested he enter the contest.
“I didn’t know anything about them,” Secor said, “but when they walked on stage, there was something about them. They ended up being my band for the rest of my life.” Secor took many fantastic photos of the show.
“The crowd was sparse but enthusiastic,” WLAV listener Tom Huffman recalls. “The band was very raw but very engaging.”
“If anybody says they couldn’t get a ticket, they’re lying,” Aldrich says, estimating that roughly 1250 people made it out that night. Virtually everyone in attendance left the pews and crowded around the stage. Aldrich’s day on the stage crew was highlighted by an impromptu late-afternoon trip around the city with members of U2’s traveling crew in search of a replacement part for Adam Clayton’s bass head. They ended up parking in the middle of Plainfield Avenue, banging on the door of Middleton’s Music until someone opened the closed shop. U2’s crew purchased more than $2,000 worth of gear for Clayton and the Edge.
“It was such an engaging show. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why U2 became so popular,” WLAV listener Paul Soltysiak, who also photographed the show, said. He recalls plenty of fans in punk and new wave fashions. This visible proof that bands with new sounds could draw in Grand Rapids correlates to the booking of several subsequent big-name punk and new wave acts in the city, including the Clash and Adam Ant.
“U2 was completely unrelated to anything we were playing,” Aldrich said of WLAV. “The station hadn’t given anything but lip service to punk or new wave.” The station played primarily album-oriented rock, a format whose collection of frequently-played artists evolved into the basis for classic rock radio. Barely a year after their Grand Rapids gig, U2 released War. The album has sold more than 11,000,000 copies, securing U2’s spot as one of the world’s most popular acts.