October 14, 2005
Madison Square Garden
It’s hard being serious all the time.
U2 realized that in 1988 after critics savaged their concert film “Rattle & Hum,” accusing the band of being pretentious and over-indulgent. It wasn’t their outspoken political views that got them in trouble. In fact one of the high points of the film was the band’s emotional performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that took place hours after the Remembrance Day Bombing that killed 11 in Northern Ireland on November 8, 1987. Bono launched into an emotional rant during the middle of the song condemning the bombing and yelling “F— the revolution!”
Instead, most critics were turned off by what they interpreted as U2 trying to place themselves in a pantheon with American legends such as Elvis Presley (the band included footage of a recording session at the famous Sun Studios in Memphis), Billie Holiday (“Angel of Harlem” is about her), Jimi Hendrix (his version of “The Star Spangled Banner” is used as the intro to “Bullet the Blue Sky”), Bob Dylan (he co-wrote “Love Rescue Me” and the band did a cover of “All Along the Watchtower”) and B.B. King (he performs on “When Love Comes to Town”). And, to prove they weren’t just trying to cater to America, they also had a shout-out to the Beatles (the first line in the movie is Bono introducing the band’s cover of “Helter Skelter” by saying: “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles, we’re stealing it back!”). Arguably, U2 deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as those legends. After all, “The Joshua Tree” was a bona fide phenomenon that turned the band from a well-regarded band into the biggest band of the 80s. But it’s one thing to be anointed as the best band in the world and another to proclaim it to be so. Critics and fans hate it when bands do the latter and “Rattle & Hum” seemed to be U2’s “bigger than Jesus” moment. The movie was a flop and the vultures were circling.
As such, when the 90s rolled around, a chastened U2 did a complete 180. They forged a new electronic-influenced sound with “Achtung Baby.” They dropped the “holier than thou” act and embraced irony and satire. The band still stood for certain causes (every album insert had lists of charities and non-profit organizations for fans to donate time or money to), but the preaching was gone. In fact, one of Bono’s stage personas during the Zoo TV tour was a TV evangelist-type character who was a little too into himself (sound familiar?).
Inevitably, U2 veered too far with the self-parody, and the 1997 album “Pop” and the ensuing “PopMart Tour” earned the band even more criticism than they got for “Rattle & Hum.” (Okay, we get it! You’re making fun of American consumerism! The gigantic golden arch is about as subtle as The Howard Stern Show during midget week.) The New Music Express called the PopMart tour a “ludicrous hullabaloo” that showed “how far they had traveled from Planet Reality”, and the most infamous moment of the tour (other than opening night when an under-prepared U2 had to restart “Staring at the Sun” on live television) was their Derek Smalls moment when they were trapped inside the gigantic lemon.
As any philosophy student who has studied Hegel or Marx will tell you, the next step for U2 was predictable. They charted a middle path whereby they went back to their political activism and earnest songwriting, but kept enough humor in their act so that they stayed grounded and likeable.
Case in point: Friday’s performance at Madison Square Garden. The band mixed serious political statements with light-hearted moments during the latest stop on their Vertigo Tour. They opened with two songs off the latest album, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” the crowd pleasing “City of Blinding Lights” and lead single “Vertigo.” After a mixture of well-known classics (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Beautiful Day”) and more obscure early songs (“The Electric Co.” and “Gloria”) Bono went into one of his trademark spiels about building a better future- only it wasn’t. Framed as tale of how he met the Edge, Bono talked about how a spaceship from the future landed in a field where he, Larry and Adam were hanging and out popped Edge. “What’s the future like?” Bono asked. “Better,” replied the Edge.
So, in a round-about (and somewhat bizarre) way, Bono made his usual point about planning for a better tomorrow without being in-your-face about it (and possibly outing Edge as an alien- hardly a gigantic leap in logic, although there are more obvious examples of guitarists being from other planets). Not to worry, though. There were plenty of other instances where Bono was his usual activist self. He wore the “Co-Exist” headband during the band’s Warfare Trilogy: “Love and Peace Or Else,” “Bullet The Blue Sky,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” He plugged the One Campaign at the beginning of “One” (obviously). And the band’s performance of “Miss Sarajevo” was followed by a video of a woman reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Once the serious stuff was out of the way, the band used the two encores to do what they wanted. They performed an acoustic mini-set featuring the underrated song “The First Time” and “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out,” which Bono said was written for late-INXS frontman Michael Hutchence. Bono then had some more fun as he picked out a woman from the crowd to dance with during “Fast Cars” and “With Or Without You” (she was, uh, extremely well-endowed and they started rolling around on the ground – I thought I had ended up at a 2 Live Crew concert). The hardcore fans even made their presence felt, singing along to the somewhat obscure song “Party Girl.”
Perhaps the biggest head-scratcher of the night was U2’s decision to close by playing “Vertigo” a second time. Maybe the decision to repeat “Vertigo,” like the circular stage the band performed on, was a subtle reflection of the fact that the band had come full circle and had more-or-less returned to its roots. Or maybe they just enjoy playing the song. Either way, they’ve earned the right to do whatever they want. And have fun doing it.
City of Blinding Lights
The Electric Co.
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
Love and Peace or Else
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Bullet the Blue Sky
Where the Streets Have No Name
One – She’s a Mystery to Me
The First Time (acoustic)
Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of
With or Without You
All Because of You
Modified from my original concert review from Livejournal. On a personal note, this was definitely the most bizarre concert I’ve ever been to. One guy sitting next to me started talking (very loudly) to his girlfriend and obviously paying no attention to the concert itself. Worse, he was a white, preppy dude talking about the brilliance of Jay-Z. Wanting to smack this poser, I instead asked him if he knew there was a concert going on. Meanwhile, the band then did “Pride” which got everyone up on their feet. Except for this guy and his friends who were sitting behind us. One of them had the nerve to tell me to sit down since they couldn’t see what was going on. Apparently, he thought we were at a poetry reading. He actually asked me if I wanted to step outside when I refused to sit down (I just laughed). I guess a band as big as U2 is bound to attract some fair-weather fans.