Wearing a mock fascist uniform and goose-stepping around the oval catwalk
jutting from the stage at the United Center on Saturday, the first of U2's
four sold-out shows here, Bono repeated an odd little chant during an encore
of "Zoo Station": "We put on a show / We do the business / But this is not /
Yes, it most certainly was, and it was every bit as phony,
bombastic and manipulative as a Britney Spears concert, the Republican
National Convention or a televangelist's miracle-working dog and pony show.
As a fan who's seen the group a dozen times and who ranks 1992's Zoo TV
tour on the short list of the best concerts I've ever experienced, U2 has
never seemed as pointlessly pretentious and preachy.
The group scrolled the text of the first few articles of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, over its
giant video screens and encouraged concertgoers not to flick their lighters
but to hold up their cell phones, then text-message their contact info to
the band's hunger-relief charity program. This assumed, of course, that
people had money left to donate after spending as much as $168 plus service
fees for U2 concert tickets.
SATURDAY SET LIST
"Love and Peace
or Else," "Vertigo," "Elevation," "An Cat Dubh," "Into the Heart,"
"City of Blinding Lights," "Beautiful Day," "Miracle Drug,"
"Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own," "New Year's Day," "Sunday
Bloody Sunday" / "Bullet the Blue Sky" / "The Hands That Built
America" / "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," "Running to Stand
Still," "Bad," "Pride," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "One."
Encores: "Zoo Station," "The Fly," "Mysterious Ways," "All Because
of You," "Yahweh," "40."
Bono did his famous crucifixion moves, as well as dropping to his knees
and striking his familiar "hands bound above my head" pose. This time, he
gave the latter a new twist, sporting a blindfold to evoke images of the
prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.
The 45-year-old front man's hubristic sins went on and on -- there was a
facile routine about how Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all "true"
(with Buddhism and other religions conspicuously absent from the list),
speeches about how "we" can end poverty in Africa, and boasts about how
world leaders take his calls. Still, while he was the most obnoxious
presence, it would be wrong to single him out as the only offender.
Guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.
gave their silent approval while providing the music that served as
background and afterthought for all of this speechifying, and they did so in
a rote, autopilot fashion that created a disturbing contrast between the
impassioned windbaggery and the passionless rock 'n' roll.
The songs from last year's "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" gained
nothing and only seemed more contrived in concert. "Love and Peace or Else,"
which opened the show; "Yahweh," the penultimate track before the encore;
"Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," the song that pays homage to
Bono's departed dad, and "Vertigo," the hit brought to you by Apple's iPod
-- all were rote, leaden, formulaic imitations of sounds that U2 has done
much, much better in the past.
This especially was evident as the new material was juxtaposed with
undeniable classics such as "An Cat Dubh," "New Year's Day" and "One," which
retained their inspired brilliance no matter how much pomposity surrounded
them, providing the evening's few highlights. As for the nadir, it came
midway through the two-hour set with an especially soggy four-song montage
of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Bullet the Blue Sky," "The Hands That Built
America" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."
If you missed the point, it was this: AMERICA'S WAR IN IRAQ IS BAD. But
ever the politician averse to alienating any demographic, Bono, sporting a
stars-and-stripes leather jacket as one of several costume changes, followed
that none-too-subtle declaration by reminding us to "support the troops."
With the exception of its startlingly innovative Zoo TV tour and its "Achtung
Baby"-era shift toward postmodern irony and fearless reinvention, this band
always has had a problem with grandiose flag-waving -- literally. During my
first U2 concert in 1981, I rolled my eyes when Bono hoisted a giant white
banner. And as documented by the concert films "Live at Red Rocks" (1983)
and "Rattle and Hum" (1989), speeches and chest-thumping theatrics always
have been part of the show.
The difference is that the music was once fresh and powerful enough to
make even the most over-the-top gestures seem justified. "We're greedy, and
we want to push boundaries," Mullen told me in an interview two weeks ago,
as if one justified the other. At this phase in U2's career, minus the
boundary-pushing, it's hard to see past the greed.
The majority of people at the United Center, it should be noted, seemed
thrilled with Saturday's performance. I'm not attempting to change their
minds or invalidate their experience, but to pose the question of whether U2
lived up to its own potential. In the end, this is just one disappointed
fan's review, and as stated in Article 19 of the U.N.'s Universal
Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion
U2 performs at the United Center again tonight, Tuesday and Thursday. On
Saturday, its set began at 9 p.m., following a mediocre opening performance
by the Kings of Leon, New Wave Southern rockers who simply aren't ready for
Bono, ever the politician averse to
alienating any demographic, criticized America's war in Iraq, then urged
fans to "support the troops."