The Rev. Bono
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 / Show business."
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.
"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 and expression."
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 the arenas.
U2's march of the tired warhorses hamstrings fine ensemble effort
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published May 9, 2005
The corporate juggernaut that is U2 takes over Chicago this week with four sold-out shows at the United Center in-between singer Bono's latest efforts to save the world. These efforts would have been enhanced Saturday by a concert that relied less on U2's past and more on songs that haven't overstayed their welcome.
On opening night, Bono lamented that a decade ago he would place calls to the White House in the midst of the band's "Zoo TV" tour, but they went unanswered. "They take my call now," he said, and the audience cheered. He went on to urge the audience to text-message his Unite Against Poverty organization which is designed to pressure politicians to follow through on the United Nations' goal of cutting world poverty in half by 2015. It was yet another example of the rock concert as political advertisement, following closely on the heels of last year's Bruce Springsteen-led Vote for Change tour that aimed to oust George Bush from the White House.
U2's gambit will no doubt engender a lot of eye-rolling from those who have grown tired of Bono's increasingly high celebrity-activist profile. But the singer's social activism also had musical relevance, as it provided the thematic backbone to U2's current tour. During a sequence of songs including "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" that addressed how religion continues to become an excuse for violence, he donned a scarf adorned with religious symbols and declared, "Jesus, Jew, Mohammed is true."
The scarf became a blindfold on "Bullet the Blue Sky," which segued into the Civil War anthem "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." It was a bit of Bono-esque theater, part hokum but all heart.
For anyone who has felt anything for the band since it made its Chicago debut more than two decades ago at the Park West, the do-gooder self-righteousness is part of the package. It's driven as much by ambition and ego as it is social and artistic reasons, and sometimes it works spectacularly: "Zoo TV," unanswered White House phone calls and all, remains a landmark of multimedia arena rock.
My quibble is not with the motive so much as with the execution. Things got off to a rocky start a few months ago, with a bungled ticket sale that brought a public apology from drummer Larry Mullen Jr. at the Grammy Awards, and again from Bono during Saturday's encore.
The tour follows the release of the band's latest studio album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," but doesn't really make a case for it. Though the album is strictly U2-by-the-numbers, a retreat back to its early '80s sound, the stage is the true measure of the quartet's songs.
The band was in fine form: Bono brought a new sense of nuance and phrasing to his singing, the Edge delved into blues by way of Jimi Hendrix during his guitar solo on "Bullet," and Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton remained implacable guardians of the Big Beat. Little wonder the "Atomic Bomb" tracks came on strong at the United Center, with a tambourine-inflected "All Because of You," a luminous "City of Blinding Lights" bathed in confetti, and especially a hymnlike "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," with Bono paying tribute to his late father while pacing the walkway that ringed the elliptical stage. Here was U2 at its best, shrinking a stadium to a living-roomlike level of intimacy.
But at least half the show was consumed with a run through U2 warhorses that were already starting to sound exhausted on previous tours: "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "One." Save for the belly dancer missing in action from "Mysterious Ways," this was tired nostalgia, apparently to sate customers who shelled out hundreds of dollars for tickets.
It appears U2 is falling into the same trap as the Rolling Stones: Charging big money for a stadium show obligates the band to turn into a hits jukebox. But especially in a city such as Chicago, where U2 has been embraced like few other bands, the quartet can afford to take more chances. The promise of U2 has always been big music tied in with conviction, imagination and innovation. Now the band sounds like it believes less in its ability to surprise and dazzle with its new music, and more in the necessity to recycle its past. If that trend continues, U2's avid concern for social justice won't be enough to keep it relevant.
Moral: it seems film critics really hate being preached at. In contrast, Chicago loved Coldplay, a group I've read just broke up (from sources with no credibility to lose). Well, folks, if they broke up, why are they still playing shows?