U2 are easy to take for granted.
They’ve been so huge for so many years, it’s easy to dismiss them as mind numbing pablum. Their mawkishness and sentimentality begs for ridicule. I’m accustomed to hearing musicians deride them and make snarky comments just to get a few easy “likes” on social media.
The funny thing is that I really like U2. I always have.
My wife suggested that we see them and since I hadn’t seen them, I realized I’d missed out on the very phenomenon that has sealed a bond with millions of fans and placed them in the firmament of rock in the first place.
And boy, am I glad I did.
U2 are a band who’ve earned the superlatives. They are the consummate Big Time Rock Band.
For over two hours, U2 reminded me that love is the healing force of the universe and that maybe, just maybe, we can redeem ourselves through rock music. Perhaps most significantly, they reminded me that sometimes the most transgressive, punk rock thing you can do as an artist is to write a song about your mother and actually affirm the gift of life and express love.
In a pop culture world overrun by narcissistic wankers and smug, detached handlebar mustachioed would-be hipsters so consumed by their cynical sneering and ironic, postmodern deconstructions, U2 come across as the real radicals.
The music succeeds on so many levels. It’s got a missionary sense of purpose, but never forgets that rock and roll is a secular church. It has equal reverence for Motown, Jimi Hendrix, Kraftwerk and Elvis, but never forgets its Dublin roots.
It’s music that says “All I want is you” and means every word. They are a band so grounded in the emotional truth of what they’re laying down, it’s really difficult to remain unmoved.
The tour is called the Innocence to Experience Tour and naturally, as the title suggests, the show traces the arc of their development as artists and men.
Visually, this show was a marvel. There was a giant rectangular structure which served as a projection surface and an elevated stage. At various points in the show, the screen showed animated renderings of their neighborhood, star constellations, oceans, nighttime cityscapes, and a virtual Johnny Cash among many other things.
Dublin’s favorite sons paid homage to their formative years with several selections from their latest release, “Songs of Innocence”. I was especially moved by their rendition of “Iris”; Bono’s tribute to his mother. He set up the song with a story about his mother’s death and how it served as an opportunity to deepen his artistry. “We all find ourselves orphans at some point in life,” he said. As someone who lost his own mother, this sentiment hit home for me in a big way.
U2 have never been shy about their political convictions and openly proclaim their desire for peace, justice and love in many songs. The scars of violence in Ireland were transformed into a plea for justice for victims of terrorism in “Raised by Wolves” and a pared down “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Photos of victims of IRA violence were woven into a devastating digital collage while the words JUSTICE FOR THE FORGOTTEN hovered over the images like a command from beyond the grave.
“We must never give in to fear. There are people who hate freedom. Who hate rock music. Who hate women. We must never give in. We must send the love that’s present here and radiate it everywhere so that it reaches every community,” exhorted Bono.
Right on, man.
At midpoint of the set, they began to lean more heavily towards the classic canon and the show gathered momentum.
“Bullet the Blue Sky” revealed U2 at their rockist best and successfully channeled Cream and Band of Gypsys. Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen churned out a thunderous groove that bored into the center of the earth while Edge’s searing sheets of feedback and noise soared over the top. A kaleidoscopic mashup of Wall Street trading pits and American iconography served as the visual companion to Bono’s Morrisonesque declamations. “America is an idea. I want to be part of that idea”. Nice work, guys.
The highlight was without question their transcendent rendition of “Pride”. “This song is for peacemakers,” declared Bono. He stepped back and allowed the congregation to carry the wordless vocal phrase; gently goading the crowd to ever increasing intensity culminating in full throated ecstasy with each chorus. This is the kind of secular devotion that is often attempted but rarely matched.
For their encore, they delivered a trio of gems; “Beautiful Day”, “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. By the time the chiming chords of the latter began, the crowd was in the palm of their hands. Once again, Bono didn’t even sing the first verse and simply allowed the song to be carried by the reverie of the crowd.
They exited the stage one by one until all that remained were the sounds of Edge and Bono. The show ended just as it began. Bono sneaked in a line of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power”.
Message received, gentlemen. Thank you for bringing it home.