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U2’s Bono and Edge Play Acoustic Set at Museum of Natural History Benefit, Joke About iTunes Launch

The Museum Gala, the biggest annual benefit for New York’s storied Museum of Natural History, is a glamorous and star-studded black-tie affair that annually raises a few million for its programs, substantial overhead and free visits for school-age children. “Saturday Night Live” founder Lorne Michaels is one of the event’s chairs (as is Tina Fey ) and over the past few years the show’s cast and extended family has played a large role in it.

Thursday night’s event was no exception: Bono and The Edge of U2 (who will perform on the show Saturday night) played a 25-minute acoustic set, Jimmy Fallon and Colin Jost were speakers, and most of the SNL cast, including Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Michael Che, Beck Bennett, Aidy Bryant, Kyle Mooney, Mikey Day and Melissa Villasenor, were in the house. Also attending were David Letterman, Keegan-Michael Key, Neil deGrasse Tyson — sporting a vest emblazoned with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” — and Jost’s date, Scarlett Johansson, who wore a striking strapless red gown that showed off her much-publicized new floral back tattoo.

Most importantly, the event raised some $4.5 million for the museum — its most successful benefit to date.

Around 700 people mingled for cocktails in the museum’s towering Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda before gathering for dinner in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, which is probably best known as the room with a 95-foot-long model of a giant blue whale hanging from the ceiling. Jost did a politically-themed standup routine about the president, global warming and the impending tax cuts for the obscenely rich (gently poking fun at some of the wealthier attendees) that was funny if at times painfully topical: “Enjoy this night, enjoy sitting under the whale,” he said. “I was just informed that there is a pretty serious New York Times piece being written against the whale. The squid finally named names.” He also made a crack about U2, saying “”normally, around this many rich people, the Irish have to ride in steerage” (he’s Irish). Less successful was a limerick Fallon rattled off in a feeble fake-Irish accent to introduce Bono and The Edge.

U2 has had an unusually busy schedule even by their standards over the past few years — the “Songs of Innocence” album in 2014, tours in 2015 and 2017, another tour next year and the excellent companion album “Songs of Experience” released today (read Variety’s review here) — and New Yorkers have been lucky to get some intimate performances around them (the full band played a three-song set at a MusiCares benefit back in June). Thursday’s performance started off with a look back, opening with a slow version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that found Bono playing with the song’s melody and phrasing, lingering over the notes (he’s had plenty of practice: the song came out almost 35 years ago).

Between Bono’s accent and the room’s cavernous acoustics, many of his comments vanished into the soaring ceiling, but luckily one of the evening’s funniest lines did not. After he praised the museum and the attendees “who are trying to make it open to everybody,” he jokingly said “But that’s not why we’re here — we’ve got a new album coming out tomorrow” and held up a blow-up of the cover of “Song of Experience.” He joked a bit about the coverphotograph (unintelligibly) and then poked fun at the band’s disastrous 2014 launch of “Songs of Innocence,” where millions of people suddenly found the album dropped, unrequested, into their iTunes folder: “And when you go home and wake up in the morning, one of these will be under your pillow,” he intoned slowly to laughter from the crowd, “whether you like it or not.”

The pair then launched into a lively version of “Get Out of Your Own Way” from the new album. The Edge moved over to piano for “Every Breaking Wave” (presumably themed for the room). Bono praised Michaels and Fallon, and said that Michaels understands that “comedians have taken the place of what we used call rock and roll stars in speaking truth to power.” The pair then finished off their brief set with “Angel of Harlem” (which was just a few blocks uptown) and returned for an encore. He dedicated the song to his friend, late INXS singer, who committed suicide “20 years ago last week, he was a lot of fun,” and the set ended with “Caught in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.”

And with that, the party continued beneath the whale …

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