After an opening set by up-and-comers Florence and the Machine, U2 hit the stage in strong form, tearing through four tracks from 1991’s “Achtung Baby” before a restrained romp through 1981’s “I Will Follow.” The song illustrates the way the band has changed as its members hit their 50s. The breathless rush is lessened as the band now slows the tempo a bit, but plays with more power, The Edge’s signature guitar arpeggios bursting with an almost metallic force.
That power was on display throughout the show.
This may be a band of 50-somethings, but it doesn’t play like one. U2’s always had a cavernous sound and that helped it transcend the limits of a stadium setting and brought new life to some old nuggets. This was especially true on “Pride” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” On record or the radio, both come close to crossing the line between inspirational and overbearing, but the larger-than-life presentation suits the stadium setting well and the songs generated singalongs that almost created a sense of intimacy in the large stadium.
To overcome the venue’s vastness, the tour features a stage quite unlike anything in rock history. Imagine a 100-foot, four-legged arachnid hovering over a circular stage ringed by what looks like a roller derby track and you’ll begin to get the idea. Now picture the arachnid’s thorax as a 360-degree video screen providing shots of the stage, scrawling messages, images of the band from years gone by and the occasional taped message from luminaries like Bishop Desmond Tutu.
At one point, Astronaut Mark Kelly beamed in from the International Space Station to handle the lyrics from the middle section of “Beautiful Day.”
Although these diversions were certainly unique, they weren’t always in the best interests of the concert, which at times more closely resembled the tightly choreographed spectacle of an Olympic Opening Ceremony than the sort of anarchic chaos associated with the best rock shows.
And although the track around the outside of the stage allowed the band to move close to a maximum amount of concert-goers, these jaunts often seemed more obligatory than inspired. In fact, when drummer Larry Mullen took a lap toting a single African drum, things took an unintentional turn in an almost Spinal Tap-ish direction.
Predictably, the setlist was conservative — leaning heavily on material from mid-career peaks “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby” — and only drawing three songs from the band’s first four albums. With few exceptions, arrangements stuck close to album versions and even Bono’s occasional injections of fragments of other artists’ songs (Talking Heads, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen) felt rehearsed.
As such, although the performances were passionate and well-played, there was a lack of spontaneity. At times, it felt a little too close to the U2 Revue for maximum comfort, although it should be noted that the crowd seemed perfectly content with nothing but the band’s hits.
For his part, Bono managed to avoid the worst of his occasional tendencies toward pomposity. He came of as earnest and relaxed and refreshingly modest. His occasional political discourses were not always as focused as they could have been, but his heart was usually in the right place.
Still, there were contradictions — not the least of which were his gushing praise for sponsor Live Nation, the mammoth power that continues to make it difficult for smaller promoters to carve out a niche in the concert economy.
Complimenting the crew for flying the band back to Europe on its’ day off also smacked of rock star excess, and presented a bit of mixed message when contrasted with the on-screen messages designed to focus fans’ thoughts on excess consumerism and conspicuous consumption. It’s hard to take a band’s pleas for responsible stewardship of the planet at face value when they’re burning massive fossil fuels to fly halfway around the world on their off day.
In the end, the band was most inspirational and most effective when it stuck to the music with as few frills as possible. Never was this more true than during the first encore.
After a stirring version of “One,” Bono stepped to the mic for a wistful, earnest verse of The Shirelle’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” accompanied only by his own gently strummed guitar. This segued seamlessly into “Where the Streets Have No Name.” There, powered by one of rock’s greatest rhythm sections, Bono’s voice and The Edge’s guitar swept through the concrete-and-steel canyon, out of the stadium and into the night sky, where they searched for the sort of transcendence U2’s sound has always promised.
They may or may not ever find what they’re looking for, but the band, its fans and just maybe the universe are better off for the quest.
— By C.E. Sikkenga, a Tribune correspondent