Touring in support of its first two albums in the new millennium, the unadventurous U2-by-the-numbers "All That You Can't Leave Behind" (2000) and "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" (2004), Bono and the boys were in danger of becoming their generation's Rolling Stones--a rote if occasionally rousing arena act more devoted to selling tickets than to breaking new musical ground.
Released last February, "No Line on the Horizon," the Dublin band's 12th studio album, came as a welcome surprise: Though they didn't always succeed, the musicians at least took chances again, veering from that familiar U2 bombast to deliver their most creative disc since "Achtung Baby" (1991). Unfortunately, the new album also has been the slowest selling of their career, with U.S. sales yet to reach platinum status of a million sold--a fact that can be attributed to no one buying CDs anymore, or to fans being turned off by the group's experimentation.
Eighteen years ago, "Achtung Baby" inspired the Zoo TV Tour, a multi-media sensory assault that stands as the most inventive arena jaunt I've witnessed. The question looming over Soldier Field Saturday night as U2 launched the North American leg of its 360° Tour at the first of two concerts in Chicago was whether the band would uphold the creative spirit of the new album, matching or topping Zoo TV, or play it safe in an attempt to reconnect with conservative fans and please its new partner, giant national concert promoter Live Nation.
The answer, as is often the case with this band, was that it tried to do it all and please everyone. Though it avoided the most ambient and atmospheric of the new tracks crafted with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the group did play a hefty chunk of "No Line on the Horizon," including the strong show opener "Breathe," the hypnotizing "Unknown Caller" and the soaring "Magnificent," which really was.
But in place of the disorienting buzz of Zoo TV, U2 gave us the empty spectacle of the multi-million-dollar stage fans have come to call "the Claw," a ludicrous, fog-belching, crab-like mega-structure that primarily succeeds in dwarfing the musicians onstage, recalling David Bowie's equally silly Glass Spider Tour and making recent Stones stages seem modest in comparison. (U2 really ought to talk to the Flaming Lips, who've been building a more impressive UFO stage out of supplies found at Home Depot at a cost of a few thousand bucks.)
Zoo TV wasn't the superior experience only because of technology, though. The early '90s were the only period in U2's three-decades-plus career when the band dared to laugh at itself, with Bono trading his messiah complex for irony and the Macphisto alter-ego, and the group suggesting that maybe, just maybe, its desire to save the world was a bit pompous and self-aggrandizing.
Alas, the crusaders were back Saturday, linking "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to Iranian pro-democracy demonstrators, turning "Walk On" into an act of solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician under house arrest, and trotting out Archbishop Desmond Tutu on video to make a plea to end poverty and cure AIDS.
Um, Bono, old chum, many activists cite corporate globalization as the prime culprit responsible for some of the ills just cited. Care to explain how that jibes with you and the band wholeheartedly endorsing Live Nation's controversial mega-merger with Ticketmaster? On second thought, maybe there was some irony on Saturday.
In between the bounty of new tunes, the band trotted out the expected crowd-pleasers--"Beautiful Day," "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Where the Streets Have No Name"--though some of these were truncated or delivered medley-style with awkward bits of covers ("Blackbird," "Stand By Me," "Oliver's Army"), with choppy and unsatisfying results.
As always, the deft rhythm section of drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton did their best to keep things moving, and the Edge was a deceptively simple one-man orchestra. Meanwhile, Bono posed and preened, emoted and yowled, flogging every millimeter of charisma he possesses. But as someone who's seen the group on nearly every tour since it first came to the U.S., I never found what I was looking for--that perfect mix of genuine passion and stadium-rock showmanship.
This band just may not be capable of it anymore--which means it may have become the Rolling Stones after all.
After the jump: Bono's Chicago shout-outs, four words about openers Snow Patrol, U2's set list and a point of comparison.
Bono's Chicago shout-outs
- In introducing "Magnificent," the artist born Paul David Hewson name-checked Soldier Field, Grant Park and Lake Shore Drive. Hey, Bono, if you think Soldier Field is magnificent now, you should have seen it before they turned it into a giant toilet bowl with all those extra corporate sky boxes.
- The singer also exhorted the crowd to "put the 'soul' into Soldier Field."
- And reminded us that the band performed at the Presidential Inauguration for our homeboy, Barack Obama.
- And bragged that a lot of Irish immigrants helped to build this city's skyscrapers. "We're the wind in the Windy City," he said.
Four words about openers Snow Patrol
Coldplay lite; pretentious and boring.
U2's set list
Encores included, the band played for a little less than two hours (sorta chintzy, considering a top ticket price of $252). Here is the set list.
2. No Line On The Horizon
3. Get On Your Boots
5. Beautiful Day / Blackbird (Beatles cover, snippet)
7. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For / Stand By Me (Ben E. King cover, snippet)
8. Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of
9. Unknown Caller
10. The Unforgettable Fire
11. City Of Blinding Lights
13. I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight
14. Sunday Bloody Sunday / Oliver's Army (Elvis Costello cover, snippet)
15. Pride (In The Name Of Love)
17. Walk On / You'll Never Walk Alone (snippet)
18. Where The Streets Have No Name
20. Bad / Fool To Cry (snippet) / 40 (snippet)
21. Ultra Violet (Light My Way)
22. With Or Without You
23. Moment of Surrender
And, as a point of comparison, here is my review of Zoo TV from back in the day.
U2 Pump Up the Power with Zoo TV
The Chicago Sun-Times, September 17, 1992
The joke goes like this: Stevie Ray Vaughan dies and goes to heaven, where Saint Peter introduces him to Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, and Bono. "Wait a minute," Vaughan says. "U2's singer ain't dead!"
"Oh, that's God," Saint Peter replies. "He just thinks He's Bono."
U2's performance at the World Music Theatre Tuesday proved that if Bono heard the joke, he'd not only get a laugh out of it, he'd probably broadcast it on the band's massive Zoo TV screens.
The group (which performs its third and final show at the World tomorrow) used Zoo TV to deflate the rock-star myth at the same time that it delivered a slick, captivating, stadium-rock spectacle. The band members turned a half dozen video cameras on themselves to provide warts-and-all close-ups that showed they're just regular guys, then they blew the picture up one hundred times larger than life.
Technologically, Zoo TV represents the future of arena rock, providing a sensory overload of videos, swirling lights, and electronic messages. Musically, the Irish quartet is at its peak, and if you took the high-tech gimmickry away, it'd still be an incredible show. But U2 knows the music is even more powerful when connected to strong images.
The same could be said of Public Enemy, the acclaimed New York hip-hop crew that followed Big Audio Dynamite II's torturous opening set. Public Enemy has never played to such large crowds, but it was up for the challenge, delivering a concise selection of its best songs, from "Fight the Power" to "Can't Truss It."
DJ Terminator X cranked the group's trademark grooves and white-noise assaults as rappers Chuck D. and Flavor Flav dropped wisdom and bounced nonstop across the stage. Overhead, a giant screen projected the cover of the group's new album, Greatest Misses, which reproduces an historical photo of a white crowd cheering the lynching of two black teens. At the end of the set, Public Enemy retaliated with the mock lynching of a white-cloaked Ku Klux Klan figure as Chuck D. wished the audience, "Peace."
The messages on Zoo TV were just as contradictory: The billboards flashed such alternating slogans as, "Everything you know is wrong" and "Believe everything." The other electronic highlights included an altered video of George Bush chanting, "We will rock you"; Bono's Natalie Cole-style video duet with Lou Reed on a cover of Reed's "Satellite of Love," and a call the singer placed to White House Operator Number Two (who had obviously heard from him before) to, "Leave a message for George: Watch more TV!"
In addition to a heavy sampling of songs from Achtung Baby, which stands as the band's best album, the group expanded its set to include such vintage anthems as "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday." But there was no nostalgia in its spirited versions of these oldies, and unlike past U2 tours, Bono didn't resort to pompous preaching, empty flag-waving, or bogus theatrics.
The singer spent a lot of time on a platform that extended far into the audience. At one point, he pulled a pair of enthusiastic female fans on stage, and they grabbed him so tight he couldn't move. Bono called to the Edge for help, and one of the fans grabbed the guitarist's ever-present cap off his head, publicly exposing his bald pate for the first time in U2 history.
It was a very human moment amid an evening of futuristic, postmodern technology--a reminder, like the music, that there is a soul somewhere in the machine--and it was funny, to boot. Which reminds me: How does U2 change a light bulb? Bono holds the bulb, and the world revolves around him.