Correction to This Article
The Oct. 21 Style review of a U2 performance incorrectly said that the band's lead singer, Bono, rose from beneath the stage on a mechanical platform at the start of the show. Bono climbed a short set of stairs. Also, the name of the band's latest album was misstated. It is "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," not "How to Build an Atomic Bomb."
Music

U2, Saving Its Thunder For First

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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 21, 2005

Let the rock-star mortals wait until the encore to add exultant punctuation to their concerts. U2 has neither the the time nor the patience for that.

After roughly 25 years -- a period during which U2 only became the biggest, most important band in the world (and don't they know it!) -- the Dublin quartet is fast-forwarding past the usual pleasantries and getting right to the rejoicing, self-saluting part of the program.

Apparently figuring that its mere presence was cause for celebration, U2 opened its MCI Center show Wednesday thus: with a frenetic, vaguely churchy swirl of noise as the messianic frontman Bono rose from beneath the stage on a mechanical platform, his arms outstretched as he basked in the glory of a confetti shower as well as the emphatic applause, yelps, shrieks, etc., from an adoring standing-room-only audience.

And when U2 actually began to perform? More of the triumphal same, sans the confetti.

With the fervor factor high after Bono's Big Entrance, U2 relentlessly attacked the opening "City of Blinding Lights" as the Edge and Bono set the show's soaring if searching tone -- the former with his ringing, swelling, high-reverb power chords, the latter with his impassioned, vulnerable vocals ("Time won't leave me as I am/But time won't take the boy out of this man").

For all its intensity on the recent album "How to Build an Atomic Bomb," the song absolutely exploded onstage, with the Edge's effects-laden guitar gaining thickness and urgency, and Bono pushing his sonorous, deeply soulful baritone higher and harder than on the studio version.

The result was sonic catharsis, something to which U2 apparently aspires on a grand level: The band seemed intent on turning the concert into a full-on rock-and-roll jubilee -- an exercise in spiritual ecstasy (albeit one shot through with a heavy dose of change-the-world polemic; but still . . . ). U2 succeeded, though not always during the two-hour, 23-song, good-but-not- quite -great concert (the first of two shows at the sold-out arena, with the second scheduled for last night).

For instance, after having performed the crunchy iPod jingle "Vertigo," the buzzing "Elevation," the earnestly anthemic "I Will Follow" (which, at the age of 25, sounded as vital as ever) and another U2 oldie, "The Electric Co." (into which Bono slyly inserted quotes from both Pete Townshend and Stephen Sondheim), the band was positively giddy, particularly Bono. Pacing the ellipse-like ramp connected to the stage, the 45-year-old frontman grinned and nodded his sweaty head as U2's acolytes cheered their approval.

" That is a great feeling," Bono said. "What do you call that feeling? . . . Ecstasy!"

Agonizingly, though, he immediately let some of the air out of the sails, tritely introducing the 1987 hit "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by saying: "This band still feels its best work is yet to come." Bono then had the crowd do its own "best" work, with fans carrying the vocals for a good chunk of the opening verse and parts of the chorus.

It happened all too frequently throughout the set, and it ultimately marred the show -- because, really, unless you're married to them (but probably not even then), you do not go to a U2 concert to hear George Stephanopoulos, Jack Valenti and 20,000 or so of their closest U2-loving friends doing their best Bono.

You go to hear Bono doing his best Bono, backed by a finely tuned three-piece.

Of course, even Bono-as-Bono is insufferable sometimes. The man knows from sanctimonious, and something about Washington tickles his strident/self-righteous bone. So Wednesday night, after having spent a good chunk of the afternoon chatting about African debt relief and whatnot with President Bush, Bono took to the stage to filibuster. He talked so much that drummer Larry Mullen set down his sticks and timed the rock-star-slash-activist's rambling, soapboxy introduction to "One."

The band was better served by its performances, particularly given that many of U2's best songs are sociopolitical in nature. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Bullet the Blue Sky," performed back to back, were far more powerful than any polemic, particularly when Bono ended the latter by quoting the Civil War anthem "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Ditto for the brilliant "Miss Sarajevo," on which Bono convincingly sang the operatic part performed in the recorded version by Luciano Pavarotti. No ditto, though, for "Ol' Man River," which U2 inexplicably performed toward the end of the concert.

Alas, Bono's final message of the night was neither political nor a show tune. Instead, U2 closed its second and final encore with an adaptation of the 40th Psalm. Known in the U2 canon as "40," it's a meditative number about salvation in which Bono repeatedly asks, "How long to sing this song?" And it was a curious choice, given the big bang with which the show began. After opening with an emphatic exclamation point, the arena-rock demigods were ending with a question.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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