By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009
After months of anticipation, it finally descended upon FedEx Field: the stage prop to end all stage props. Looming 164 feet over the stage and christened "The Claw," with its menacing girth it made Funkadelic's mothership look like a Frisbee covered in Reynolds Wrap.
It was stunning, surreal -- oh, and a rock band played beneath it, too. The band is called U2, and it's on the most extravagantly staged tour of its 33-year career. And, judging from the stage banter Tuesday, its fans are mostly high-ranking politicians. (Only at a U2 concert will Nancy Pelosi be shouted-out twice.)
The band charged through a satisfying set of its most rousing tunes -- "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Beautiful Day" -- but it often felt secondary to the nonstop visual turbulence. This wasn't about the band onstage. It was about the stage itself. "We got a spaceship," declared frontman Bono early in the show. "But it isn't going anywhere without you!"
Was that a threat? Because this thing looked scary. To call it "The Claw" is to have seen it only through the tiny windows of YouTube. In person, it felt more like "The Colossal Robotic Crustacean That's About to Stomp Off Into Prince George's County and Destroy Everything in Its Path." Even if it did stay put, its laser cannons would surely vaporize Larry Mullen Jr. upon the flubbing of his first drum fill.
Those laser cannons were actually stage lights and with all of them firing in tandem, the band underneath seemed practically invincible. Take 2004's "Vertigo," a middling U2 anthem at best. As the quartet performed in the round, leaping from overblown chorus to overblown chorus, a cylindrical video screen hanging overhead actually began to move, splintering into hundreds of honeycomb-shaped panels that stretched slowly downward. Black-and-white images spun around this gigantic LCD funnel, a bioluminescent roulette wheel twisting on an axis of strobe lights. It was enough to set your mouth agape, and it gave the band permission to do whatever it pleased.
As long as the screen was working, that is. Early in the set, during a handsome version of "Magnificent," the pixels went black for about 90 seconds. Now this was some real suspense! What if U2 had to slog through the next two hours under the biggest busted television on planet Earth?
It would have been fine. Even while playing a new single that fans are still getting to know, this is a troupe that can hold its own. Before the band had a chance to really prove it, the screen flickered back to life and the Edge plunged into a warbling guitar solo.
With all whiz-bangs whiz-banging at full capacity, U2's best tunes felt bulletproof. "New Year's Day" was urgent and spry. "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" was noble and smooth. Even "Mysterious Ways" managed to deliver an unexpected punch, despite Bono's awkward invitation to "Get your groove on!"
His intensity peaked during "Where the Streets Have No Name," as he stomped his foot on the stage, pleading with the crowd to chime in. He had failed to trigger the enthusiastic singalongs that these songs deserved, but here it felt almost like a demand.
What did he expect? This wasn't a rock show. This was an orgy of light and sound -- something that felt most apparent during "With or Without You." When a grown man croons one of the most tender rock songs ever written while wearing a jacket embedded with laser pointers, can we be expected to do anything other than drool?
As with any seamlessly choreographed rock extravaganza, the evening's highlight was completely unintentional. It came during that delightful moment of the band's 2000 hit "Beautiful Day," a momentary pause where the band's gusto evaporates into nothing, leaving the Edge and Mullen to harmonize in empty space.
Singing into their headset microphones before diving back into the chorus, the duo sounded out of breath and out of key. It lasted only a second, but it was a necessary reminder that beneath the dreamlike spectacle flashing overhead, there were actually four guys just trying to play a song.