at Chicago's Soldier Field. (Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times)
Bono's back is better, so Bono's back -- and a little bit better.
U2 returned Tuesday night to Soldier Field, making good on rescheduling a series of concerts postponed last year (including July 6, 2010, in Chicago) after the band's famous singer injured his back and required surgery. The band's 360° Tour began in June 2009 -- a few months after the release of its latest album, the creative if less commercially successful "No Line on the Horizon" -- and has lumbered around the world off and on since then.
In that time, the 360° Tour has become the most successful concert tour ever. Live Nation announced in April that ticket sales had broken the Rolling Stones' previous record of $554 million (for the 2005-07 Bigger Bang Tour). By the time U2 finally wraps this marathon on July 30, the take is expected to be $700 million. The show's monstrous, four-pronged, space station-like stage, dubbed "The Claw," also has been certified as the largest stage rig ever constructed for a concert tour. (Bono and The Edge have even suffered one of Broadway's biggest false starts with their beleaguered musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.")
If U2 is the biggest band on earth in so many ways, it's perhaps not surprising the final incarnation of the 360° Tour has its sights set on outer space.
The band took the stage Tuesday to strains of David Bowie's "Space Oddity." They left two-and-a-half hours later to Elton John's "Rocket Man." In between -- in addition to fog-spewing, cocooning effects of The Claw -- videos showed cartoon aliens in flying saucers and even American astronaut Mark Kelly (husband of wounded Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords) aboard the International Space Station, holding a sign with the title of the song "Beautiful Day" and then, in the middle of that song's performance, Kelly returned the show to "Space Oddity," muttering Bowie's lyrics for a goosebump moment: "Tell my wife I love her very much / She knows."
The show has changed slightly since the tour first landed in Soldier Field in September 2009. The Claw is noticeably battered and worn, and the band is playing far fewer songs from "No Line on the Horizon" (Tuesday we only got three, including a wonderfully rich, trippy romp through "Get on Your Boots"). Early in the set, though, they threw in a nice addition: "Out of Control," the first U2 single from 1979, which Bono dedicated to "my true love, who's here tonight."
Bono, 51, who seemed especially out of breath during his talky moments, was back in preacher mode at several points. During "Until the End of the World," he gave a homily about freedom ("that word feels expensive tonight") before striking a pose on the bridge with a prop rose (not the first moment during the evening that feels like a very expensive video shoot). He introduced "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" rambling about America being an idea more than a country. The transition from "Walk On" to "One" included Bono going on about freed Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, essentially a dramatic commercial for the One Campaign for international aid.
Throughout the night, The Edge continued showcasing his versatility as a guitarist, wielding the steely, serrated riffs that opened the show (the hard slap of "The Fly," the funky get-down of "Mysterious Ways," the multi-layered barrage of "Until the End of the World"). Goofy bassist Adam Clayton reminded us that "Get Your Boots On" is a song all about the bottom end, and even drummer Larry Mullen Jr. got to stroll half-heartedly around the stage with a hand drum while loops supported "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight."
The tour is named for the theater-in-the-round aspect of that stage rig, which allows band members to stroll a circular catwalk and cross bridges over the crowd on the stadium floor. Of all the gizmos and whiz-bangs on the now battered and paint-peeled Claw -- even the conical video screen that completely enveloped the band during "Zooropa" and turned them into the dot at the bottom of a brilliant LED exclamation point during "Vertigo" -- that catwalk was the most distracting. Fortunately, they didn't use it much, keeping to a minimum the requisite individual strolls around the stadium, showing off the miracles of wireless but never engaging much with the crowd or certainly each other.
Because no matter how far they reach into the stars, this is a band whose power is still most potent when their feet are on the ground. When they scorned the catwalks and huddled together on the central platform, where they could see and feel each other's physical presence, they were still an unstoppable force. "Pride" was like that -- so good, in fact, that the crowd surprised Bono by refusing to stop singing the song's oh-oh-uh-uh chant after the performance was complete.
At the very end of the show, they wound up capitalizing on that chemistry. Bono introduced "Moment of Surrender" with a haphazard speech in which he mentioned Greg Carroll, an assistant and friend who died in a 1986 motorcycle accident. "We wrote a song for him, which we won't be playing tonight," Bono said. Immediate grousing from the crowd made Bono realize his impolitic blunder, so after "Moment of Surrender" the band pulled out their ear pieces -- always a great sign -- and The Edge quickly and nervously warmed into the ringing melody of "One Tree Hill."
"If we screw up really badly, don't put it on the Internet," Bono said as he began singing. They didn't screw it up, it was beautiful, in the moment, inspiring -- a seasoned band coming together to make its music shine brighter than the strobes, laser jackets and video screens. Someone surely posted it. Don't miss it.
And, of course, it's already on YouTube...
Interpol opened the Tuesday night show with their typical gentlemen's indie-rock set. Well-dressed and led by singer Paul Banks, with his Bobby Brady-gone-bad looks, the quintet played hard during a difficult slot -- to a half-full, still-sunny stadium of U2 fans settling in with their beers. But surely some of those fans noticed guitarist Daniel Kessler's chiming debt to The Edge during "Barricade" or U2's early knack for blending all the players' voices during the great crescendo of "Lights."
U2's set list Tuesday night
"Even Better Than the Real Thing"
"Until the End of the World"
"Out of Control"
"Get On Your Boots"
"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
"Beautiful Day" / "Space Oddity"
"City of Blinding Lights"
"I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" (remix, with "Discotheque," "Psycho Killer," "Life During Wartime")
"Sunday Bloody Sunday"
"Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" / "Where the Streets Have No Name"
"Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me"
"With or Without You"
"Moment of Surrender"
"One Tree Hill"