U2 sheds decades like snakes shed skin, reinventing themselves as a straight-ahead rock 'n' roll band with "All That You Can't Leave Behind" and following it up with the current "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb." Current tour, which started last week in San Diego, is all about the here and now of U2, emphasizing seven songs from the new disc and past tunes that sonically connect with their contempo sound.
U2 sheds decades like snakes shed skin, reinventing themselves as a straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll band with “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” and following it up with the current “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” Current tour, which started last week in San Diego, is all about the here and now of U2, emphasizing seven songs from the new disc and past tunes that sonically connect with their contempo sound. They haven’t shaped the show into an epiphany generator — it is still rough or disengaging in a few spots — but the band continues to strike their unique balance between the spectacular and the intimate.
Self-importance, a hallmark of Bono’s stage persona, has faded a shade or two, but there’s an unrelenting seriousness to the 2½ hours the band spends onstage. Even as he turns personal, singing about his father on “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” for example, he attempts to work an angle of universal significance. There’s always a message at a U2 concert, and this tour pushes for global equality and a drive to end poverty in Africa; they handle it artistically and simply with only a modicum of heavy-handedness. (It even went over well in notoriously conservative Orange County, but some misplaced applause indicated there’s a fair amount of the audience that doesn’t grasp Bono’s message, which, more often than not, sounds remarkably similar to the words of Bob Marley, who has been dead for 24 years).
U2, still keeping it to the four musicians who created the band 29 years ago in Dublin, opened with the tom-tom driven “Love and Peace or Else,” with Bono and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. positioned away from the mainstage on a arched walkway that stretched a third of the way into the open floor. The walkway, used by each member of the band, increased fan proximity but cut into the effectiveness of numbers such as “Elevation,” “Sometimes You Can’t Make It” and the medley of “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Hands That Built America”; those numbers were either rusty or muddy in their execution, and a rasp in Bono’s voice kept him from delivering the songs at peak power.
Other perfs, however, stretched from respectable to remarkable. “An Cat Dubh” and “The Electric Co.,” from their first album, “Boy,” were invigorating; “Mysterious Ways” closed the main set on a commanding note; and, in the encores, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “One” and “All Because of You” displayed the U2 spectrum with aplomb. Band toyed with a few numbers, adding Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and the Who’s “I Can See for Miles” to the coda of “Electric Co.” and the Beatles’ “Blackbird” to “Beautiful Day,” but there didn’t appear to be a point to any of it. With tambourine in hand, Bono sang a bit of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and even then he didn’t crack a smile.
If there’s one element that connects the dots of the 24 songs in the show, it’s the chiming guitar sound of the Edge. His role, diminished in their experimental electronics phase in the 1990s, has returned as a signature. It settles reassuringly on the ears of the fans who long for “The Joshua Tree” and the effect that music had on their lives; by inserting into the main set “Running to Stand Still,” a little-heard gem from their 1987 classic, they avoid cliche while connecting with the past. U2 would be wise to avoid “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Bad” or “With or Without You” for the next several tours; by then, they’ll have fully exorcised the ghosts of the 1980s.
Performing less than 10 hours after the announcement of the death of Pope John Paul II, Bono recalled meeting “the holy father” and their exchange: Bono handed the pontiff fly eyewear; the pope gave Bono a cross, modeled after a Michelangelo design, on a necklace. Bono pulled the necklace from his pocket, saying he only takes it off at rock ‘n’ roll shows, and hung it on the microphone. After noting he didn’t agree with everything the pontiff said, he praised the pope for “having a look of truth in his eyes” at their meeting and for his power as a communicator. The band then performed “Miracle Drug” in his honor, the words seemingly tailor made:
“The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile
I’ve had enough I’m not giving up
On a miracle drug.”
Bono ended the tune on bended knee, blessing himself. It certainly touched the hearts of fellow Catholics.
U2’s trek, which stops in L.A. at Staples Center Tuesday and Wednesday and returns Nov. 1 and 2, stands to be the biggest tour of the year. In New York, U2 performs at Madison Square Garden on May 21 plus Oct. 7, 8, 10, 11 and 14.