Bono (Paul Hewson) has said that, on its current tour, which included a May 3 stop at Gund Arena, U2 is applying for the job as the greatest rock group in the world. Not even the Rolling Stones and the Beatles had the gall to decree themselves the greatest -- they let others heap on the accolades. But aside from the unbelievable pretense involved in making such a claim, the problem with U2 is simply that its r´sum´ hasn't been updated to fit the job description.
Try as it might to go back to the basics, strip down its music to the core, and play more intimate venues (arenas instead of stadiums), U2 can't shake the fact that it's no longer a vital rock band. Put its Grammy-winning single "Beautiful Day" (from its most recent album, last year's All That You Can't Leave Behind) up against "New Year's Day" (from 1983's War), and you'll see the differences. The latter is a call to revolution; the former is an ode to complacency.
"I believe in you," Bono sang to the crowd, the arena lights still lit for the opening notes of the first song, "Elevation." But this show wasn't about us; it was all about him. In one of the less subtle moments of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour affair, a series of squiggly lines on an electronic screen behind the stage came together briefly to read "Love me." During "Bullet the Blue Sky," Bono picked up a mobile spotlight and aimed it at the upper decks of the Gund, but by the end of the song, he was shining the light on his own face, making himself the real star.
As much as he might have involved the audience (he gave one overly enthusiastic patron some stage time before the guy got evicted by security, and he later dragged a young woman onstage to dance with him during "Mysterious Ways"), Bono always returned to himself. And that's what this "Elevation" tour was about: not putting the band back in the pit with the fans (though Bono did take a run through the crowd at one point, a herd of bouncers in tow to shove fans out of the way), but getting the fans back into the band.
Thankfully, he didn't adopt any of the satirical alter egos that he has on earlier tours. Three songs into the set, during a rendition of "Until the End of the World," he mugged for the photographers, clasped hands with the crowd, and engaged in a staged duel with guitarist the Edge. All the while, strobe lights flashed incessantly to heighten the melodrama. While the setup was relatively simple (a heart-shaped catwalk stretched out onto the arena floor, and the stage devoid of props), the band still turned to artifice. A series of screens created larger-than-life shadows of Bono, and smoke pumped into the arena, so that it appeared at one point that the black-leather-jacket-clad singer was walking on clouds. And Bono never stopped moving: He ran sprints on the catwalk during "Where the Streets Have No Name" and stayed still only when he played acoustic guitar.
After recalling a gig the band played some 20 years ago at the Agora, Bono introduced "New York" as a "paean to mortality." It was one of many sentimental moments that brought out the middle-aged, nostalgic-for-youth theme at the core of All That You Can't Leave Behind. The most daring political statements included a plea for stricter gun control (a video showed footage of Charlton Heston speaking out against gun control -- we were supposed to find his speech offensive, but the mixed reaction of the crowd suggested the message didn't get through) and an attempt to get audience members to write their congressmen about genocide in Africa.
At one point, Bono said that the late Joey Ramone, to whom he paid tribute numerous times during the concert, would one day rest in peace at the Rock Hall, and he dedicated "One" to Rock Hall curator Jim Henke. For someone who was always concerned about the plight of the oppressed, Bono's concerns about his future as an aging rock icon suggested that he has turned the focus inward, and the results -- All That You Can't Leave Behind songs such as "Walk On," "Kite," and "In a Little While" -- were far less engaging than politically charged anthems such as "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "Bad."
The concert's high point was "I Will Follow," which U2 delivered with gusto. The band kept the momentum going with a fist-pumping rendition of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," but just as it was jamming and building up steam, Bono once again started working the crowd, and the show's energy started to wane. And when U2 returned to playing new material with "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," it turned to the kind of empty sloganeering that's so typical of All That You Can't Leave Behind. Funny how quickly elevation can turn to deflation, even in the hands of the greatest rock band in the world.
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