Despite a promising start, things did not go U2's way last night. The set seemed to flag about halfway through, after the song "Exit," which was an appropriate cue that the group did not pick up on. Lead singer Bono Hewson had slipped on the wet stage, and suffered a dislocated shoulder, according to a preliminary report from the Washington Hospital Center.
The diagnosis came after the concert, about three songs shorter than usual, was completed.
Apart from such bad luck, it would be nice to report that U2 has made the leap from intimate arenas like the Capital Centre to giant stadiums like RFK Stadium with elfin grace, but to tell the truth, something was lost in the transition. Of course, you'd never suspect it from the sea of clenched fists and outstretched arms punctuating Bono's lyrics or the keening 45,000-voice choir joining in on a dozen anthemic choruses last night.
But stadium rock is a matter of commerce, not communion, and U2's protestations to the contrary -- reasons vary from circumventing scalping to avoiding the perpetual tour -- there is just no way to "turn this big empty space into a small club." Those were Bono's words, but unfortunately a promise U2 couldn't keep.
The show kicked off promisingly with the cathedral chords of "Where the Streets Have No Name," and proceeded through much of their current "Joshua Tree" album and earlier works as well, with the accent on sonic wallop.
Through the night, there were frequent moments of transcendence: The insistent quest of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," a discordant and aggressive "Bullet the Blue Sky," a tensile "Bad," a compulsive "Running to Stand Still," and dense, powerful renditions of U2's two indictments of intolerance, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Pride (in the Name of Love)." These songs conveyed the exhilarating grandeur of U2 at its best, that tense swirl of hope and doubt at the heart of its sound.
But other songs, including "New Year's Day" and "I Will Follow" (probably, because it was hard to follow), seemed obscured by a powerful but indiscriminate sound system that tended to echo or overlap the band's individual voices and generally muddled things -- unless you were directly in front.
It was less a betrayal than a disappointment, because the things that have made U2 so powerful in the past -- Bono's vocal presence and determination, guitarist The Edge's shards of sonic coloration and drummer Larry Mullen's martial irony -- seemed somehow diminished by this expansiveness. What you got was loud; what you used to get was deep.
U2 decided to work without video screens, though there was one behind the sound tower that benefited those in the back of the stadium (where the sound was also excellent). Because U2 chose not to accommodate spirit to size, a dichotomy arose between sound and sight -- fervor without focus, matchstick men versus dynamite music.
U2's fervent pop evangelism, which has so often been the spark for concerts as catharsis, also seemed diminished in this setting: Bono's idealistic broadsides reduced to pop hits, the band's value-laden concepts burdened by the enveloping success of the messengers. At times, RFK felt like a crusade rather than a community, and even Bono sometimes gave in to benevolent pomposity that seemed less affected in the past (admittedly, he does look good in flag shrouds).
Then again on Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" U2 coaxed an audience member up on stage to play some elementary rhythm guitar. With repetition, such a gesture loses its spontaneity and becomes pop schtick.
Maybe U2 is just trying to remind itself that, metaphorically, they came out of an audience nine years ago, fans who found relief and affirmation in rock. But since U2 also sang the Beatles' "Help" with sparing deliberateness, maybe they're not all that comfortable with this setup after all.
Despite Bono's injury, U2 ended the night with encores of the insinuating "With or Without You" and "Forty." That gave the concert a kind of grace and power that validated all the attention and affection the group received and finally carried through on the promise that "Tonight We Can Be as One."