“All you need is love,” said Bono, close to wrapping up the triumphant debut of U2 360’s U.S. leg. “And a spaceship.” It was hard to disagree with the sentiment. Ever since the PR-disaster monstrosity that was the PopMart tour, U2 had been delivering no-frills arena rock shows that deservedly won back a lot of doubters. But this is the biggest band in the world, and it couldn’t be kept out of stadiums forever. Fortunately for everybody stuck in the nosebleeds, U2 brought The Claw, and reminded us all what it’s like to go to a SHOW. Only this time around, the spectacle wasn’t a gaudy, obtrusive backdrop for a group of ironic/iconic rock stars; it was generous entertainment and a visual enhancement for the greatest band on Earth.
While PopMart was unfairly maligned, it was admittedly the extreme culmination of the U2-as-self-parody experiment, and any semblance of intimacy between band and fan had become a caricature. With the Elevation and Vertigo tours, the band set out to reclaim its musical center and its spontaneity, accidentally growing up in the process. It’s not like anybody missed the dazzling spectacle, but at Soldier Field, U2 finally found the elusive balance between earnest resonance and flamboyant showoffmanship that the four Irish lads have been looking for since they started their band.
In the back of my mind, I know that U2 will some day call it quits or be required to ease off a bit, or start to comparatively suck just a little. I think this notion makes every show even sweeter; each one is an experience that was ever-increasingly unlikely to be so damn good. Bono will be fifty next year, for Pete’s sake. So after the dust settled in my brain after my last Vertigo show in 2005, I let U2 slip largely out of my consciousness. I spent my time immersed in jambands and extreme metal and the latest cutting-edge indie rock. No Line On The Horizon came out, and I let my critical brain downplay how much I loved it. I didn’t allow myself to obsess over setlists as the tour progressed through Europe. Even after Snow Patrol finished playing Saturday evening, I didn’t quite have those superfan butterflies twisting around in my guts. And then Larry Mullen, Jr. walked onstage, sat down and started into a muscular drumbeat, and with a ferocious, grinding riff, The Edge roared into “Breathe”. And suddenly, there was no other band in the world.
We need to be constantly reminded to be grateful of all the wonderful things in our lives, but I’m always blown away by how I could possibly have forgotten how utterly amazing a U2 show is. How every song becomes a vivid beacon of emotion even if I’ve heard it a thousand times. The fluid chemistry between these four guys can only come from thirty years of never really playing with anybody else, and the obvious benevolence they all exude is its own entity as they’re up there giving us every ounce of energy they’ve got. I just never quite get this degree of…anything, from any other band. U2 is 100%, and there’s just no evidence to suggest that this will change any time soon.
No Line is a great album, but it has its weak moments. Since its release, U2 has clearly worked on ironing out the wrinkles for the live show, and the effort is an undeniable success. The somewhat awkward first single “Get On Your Boots” works infinitely better as a bare-bones scorcher with a mesmerizing light show as a backdrop. The triteness of the chanting in “Unknown Caller” becomes an anthemic declaration of self-awareness and unity when you add 80,000 extra background singers and a loose and inspired Edge solo. And album-clunker “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” has been completely abandoned in favor of its vastly superior remix, the dance-party pinnacle of the set and an absolute highlight of both nights. Opening the show with four new songs is a gamble, but “Breathe” is the perfect tone-setter, and the title track and “Magnificent” are two of the most vibrant and stunning songs in the band’s impressive canon. As far as the Chicago crowd was concerned, these are already classics.
A lot of the songs are tuned down a bit so that Bono can still reach the skies, but it doesn’t sap any of the passion, and even as his range decreases, he expands and refines his dynamic. There were moments when he cracked, and moments when he forgot lines, but through it all he remains one of the best singers in music. Largely abandoning his weakening falsetto, he belted through every number, even pushing himself within reach of “Bad”, utterly shaking off the first-night-of-tour jitters. The effort may have contributed to a scratchiness during the early goings on Sunday, but by “Beautiful Day”, he was back in top form, and his performances of “Walk On” and “With Or Without You” on the second night were nothing short of heroic. He is more creative with his own melodies on this tour than ever before, much more of an improviser than the rest of the band, mixing it up intuitively without sabotaging the singalongs. It really is as if every song is reborn every night.
The only real stumble Saturday night was the recently-unearthed “Unforgettable Fire;” Bono seemed a bit lost at times, and its majesty was somewhat blunted by the spectacle of the stage apparatus itself. The spaceship is essentially a towering rocket crowned with a disco ball (used to dazzling effect during surprise encore gem “Ultraviolet”) and surrounded by a huge, cylindrical video screen that projects in all directions, all held up by four enormous legs (The Claw) that looked like they might rise up and Godzilla their way through the Windy City at any moment. I won’t go into any more detail, because I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise for those who haven’t seen it, and because no words could really evoke the actuality of it. You can find a billion pictures anywhere you care to look, but none will do it justice. I was exceedingly thankful that we’d decided to take in one night from the floor and one night from the rafters, because each experience was incredible in different ways. The idea behind this setup is ostensibly to create intimacy in a stadium setting, which is ludicrous…yet not entirely absurd. No matter where you might have been in Soldier Field, you were seeing the band, not missing a minute of the action onstage. This really is the first experience of its kind.
Saturday was so spectacular, it was tough to imagine that experiencing a very similar setlist on Sunday could possibly top it…and there I go, forgetting what U2 does to me again. The band was tighter, more at ease and yet more ecstatic, and anything that had seemed shaky even for a moment the night before clicked into place on Sunday. The debut of Passengers nugget “Your Blue Room” was a geek thrill lost on much of the crowd, but the video of International Space Station astronauts reciting the closing lines of the song incited giddiness in me. The addition of “Until The End Of The World” was a triumph, possibly the most incendiary performance of it that I’ve seen; as The Edge wailed through the ending, Bono ran around the circular ramp, collapsing on the final beat, then coming back to life for a gorgeous, partially-improvised acoustic take on “Stay”. The set ended with a heart-rending “One”, including the live-only coda that Bono rarely pulls out these days, and then his striking solo rendition of “Amazing Grace” before “Where The Streets Have No Name”, as vital as it was twenty years ago, truly timeless.
Bono came out for the encore in a new jacket spangled with laser lights for the rousing “Ultraviolet”, then the always-moving “With Or Without You”; the roar of the crowd that followed this was unlike anything I’d ever heard. But it wasn’t until Sunday night that closer “Moment Of Surrender” truly struck me; it never quite made sense to me on the album, even though I immediately found it to be Bono’s most passionate vocal recording since the 80s. Here amongst the multitude of adoring fans, it came clear to me as a plea for love, for oneness, and as those among the crowd who still had a voice cried out the “oh-oh-oh”s, it felt like we might be giving back a little bit of the joy and comfort that U2 has been giving us for much of our lives. The lonely-at-the-top ego was staring out at countless humans, yet there again, after all the alter-egos have been abandoned, were four humans up on a tiny stage, living for this communion with the rest of the world. For us, a chance to pretend that we are getting to know these four strangers a little better…but I think it’s the same idea for them. And if you can surrender to that moment, feel that energy passing between us and them, there are no rock stars; just one big community of grateful humans.
And a spaceship. The spaceship’s important, too.