Shirley Manson with U2 at Metro; photo by Paul Natkin
Continuing an extensive and relentless publicity campaign that has often seemed both more expensive and more elaborately planned than the American invasion of Iraq, U2 came to Chicago's Metro on Tuesday night.
The Irish rockers did not perform, and they declined to talk to the press, lest they be forced to confront any mildly thorny question.
A few months prior to launching their U.S. tour at Soldier Field on Sept. 12 and the night before their 12th studio album, "No Line on the Horizon," was set to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. came here for one reason and one reason only.
To hype, hype, hype--the better to sell, sell, sell.
Seated on plush leather couches on Metro's stage, the band conducted a friendly hour-long chat with former Garbage front woman Shirley Manson broadcast over syndicated radio.
"As I do come from a long line of traveling sales people on my mother's side... here were are, traveling from town to town, laying out our wares," Bono told a crowd of several hundred fans, most of whom won admission from one of the three Chicago radio stations eager to help U2 sell U2's new music.
It was the sort of non-eventful event worthy of the Rolling Stones at their most bloated and corporate, and that was no surprise: The members of U2 have made no secret of their desire to dethrone the Stones as the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band, and they've been just as cynical about selling their souls to corporate Satans--jumping into bed with giant national concert promoters Live Nation, dumping their lucrative deal with Apple for an even more lucrative tour sponsorship by BlackBerry and plodding through tired retreads of older sounds on their last two albums, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" (2000) and "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" (2004).
In light of all of that, and against all odds, with "No Line on the Horizon," U2 somehow found the courage to once again challenge the expectations of what U2 "should" sound like, and the band crafted its most daring, inventive and just plain best album since "Achtung Baby" (1991).
And that only makes the hollow rock-star theatrics of Tuesday's shindig all the more disappointing.
The band walked onstage promptly at 8 p.m. and, with Manson's coaxing, began to play some of their favorite songs for the radio listeners at home. Drummer Mullen started out by playing the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated"--"because sometimes, you need to be sedated"--followed by the Edge paying homage to "the first of the Irish rock stars," Van Morrison, and playing his most commercial track, "Brown Eyed Girl" (a tune Morrison has been disavowing ever since he recorded it).
Clayton played something by the Airborne Toxic Event. "I like to discover new music," he said, noting he heard this band during a photo shoot for SPIN. "I think I'm going to be listening to it all year long."
For his turn in the DJ slot, Bono nodded to the Chicago audience by playing "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" by the Smashing Pumpkins.
"What I want from rock 'n' roll is the life force," the singer said. "When it's too sloppy, melancholy or miserable, it's really not rock 'n' roll. What I like about this song is the word 'rage,' and I think rage is at the heart of any great rock 'n' roll band."
As these tracks played on the radio, the band took a few questions from the audience. In response to what I assume was a query about the title of the new album (it was lost for lack of volume), Bono waxed rhapsodic about our local geography.
"Just looking over Lake Michigan, there was a moment when the sea and the sky became the same color and disappeared into infinity. It seems like a really positive thought right now, whether it's a relationship or a band."
Someone else asked about playing the Presidential inauguration.
"It wasn't just the America dream, it was also an Irish dream," Bono said. "It was a very, very powerful moment in our band's life and in its history. To see some of this being in Chicago... Well, of course, in Ireland we've always thought it was 'O'bama,' with an 'apostrophe O.'"
(Yes, Bono really talks... like that. Few complete sentences. Sketchy thoughts. But poetic. Or maybe... nothing to really say.)
How or why has Bono stayed married for so long? (He wed the former Alison Stewart in 1982.)
"Even after all these years, I still don't feel like I really know her." ("Awwwww," the crowd cooed in spontaneous harmony.)
Why did the band decide to start its American tour in Chicago?
The Edge: "Why not?"
For the second go-round as DJs, Mullen played a track from Arcade Fire's "Funeral" album, the Edge played "The Whole of the Moon" by the Waterboys, Clayton played the Klaxons and Bono chose "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen.
As these tunes were broadcast, a few gutsy Chicago fans dared to toss some difficult questions at the band. One man asked about the Congressional hearings on performance rights from terrestrial radio, and though the Edge asserted that "We love radio; that's why we're here," Bono made clear his support for artists getting paid more royalties.
"I think there is a moment in time where somebody like U2, it doesn't affect us," Bono said. "But a lot of people, musicians, are on the edge of getting kicked out of their apartments because music is being marginalized. I don't want to go back to the time when minstrels and troubadours arrived at the grand castle and played for the scraps off the tables. Our ideas was, we'd be the lords and ladies.
"It's not about being greedy. If you think of music as a sort of sacred, sacramental thing, you don't like to see it disrespected and turned into tap water. And we feel at the moment that is happening. I like the idea of musicians being in control of their own destiny."
Finally, another angry Chicagoan asked about the debacle during the last tour whereby as many of the special $30 tickets seemed to wind up in the hands of scalpers as fans.
"Tickets scalpers... The last time we had that problem, it was something beyond our control totally," said the Edge. "But we certainly learned a lot from that experience, and we're convinced that the people who are dealing with that now will never let it happen again."
"One of the reasons we're playing outdoors this time," Bono added, "is that a by-product of that is the tickets are not so rare. It's kind of a weird thing to play shows and you sense that a lot of people are there not because of the music, but because it's an event, and they can afford to pay the high prices to the scalpers."
Left unanswered: How the band's arrangement with Live Nation, vying to enter an unprecedented merger with Ticketmaster, could possibly improve the situation.