Let’s face it—we’re at the point where if you’re going to buy a DVD that contains a U2 live performance, you know what you’re getting. U2, for all of the evolution and devolution it’s been privy to over the past couple of decades, is more or less the same band that it was back in 1980, with the same four members playing a mix of energetic rock and emotive balladry. Larry Mullen Jr. pounds the skins with stoic authority, Adam Clayton strums the bass while betraying the occasional smirk, The Edge chisels away at the guitar with an “I could be a frontman, but I choose not to” cool, and Bono is, well, Bono. He emotes and writhes and does his righteous posturing thing, and all of it just seems right, because he’s Bono, and he’s supposed to do that sort of thing.
When we last left U2, the band was in the process of proving that all of the above remained true. The PopMart tour, complete with its famous giant lemon, was the culmination of years of experiments in irony, experiments that simultaneously (and, some would say, ironically) happened in response to the massive celebrity U2 garnered in the ‘80s and ‘90s and resulted in the alienation of much of the band’s core fanbase. All that You Can’t Leave Behind, along with the accompanying Elevation tour, saw the band trying to win back those disillusioned fans with an album that returned U2 to the classic sound of the ‘80s and a tour that stripped away the excess ridiculousness in favor of a renewed emphasis on the music. It was a tour that started with the band pleading for an audience to love them, and finished after 9/11 with pleas for those in that same mass audience to love each other.
Now, the members of U2 are bona fide stars once again, and there’s no need for apologies. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (a title that veers back a bit toward self-parody) and the Vertigo tour are clear displays of a band happy to be universally-loved worldwide superstars once again. Indeed, the Vertigo tour has not even finished yet, and already we have the “definitive” document of the tour in the form of the newly released Vertigo 2005: Live in Chicago DVD. The performance is mostly from 10 May 2005, a date that astute U2 fans will recognize immediately as Bono’s birthday, a date that Bono himself seems to primarily recognize as the birthday of his daughter, Jordan (whom he affectionately calls “Jo-Jo” over the course of the show). Drawing from the momentum of a special day and a very receptive Chicago crowd, U2 manages to put on a show to be remembered, the perfect sort of show to be immortalized on the DVD medium.
The strength of a typical U2 show can largely be measured by the quantity and quality of the “U2 moments” that occur over the course of the concert. It’s widely known and assumed that the band knows how to play, and Bono knows how to sing—to be sure, if U2 wanted to put on a show that simply featured the songs as they are on the albums, they could. Typically, however, they don’t. Over the course of Vertigo 2005, the U2 moments abound. Early in the concert, while the band is doing a transition from “An Cat Dubh” to “Into the Heart”, Bono pulls a young boy on stage and proceeds to sing the song to him. The joy (not to mention the fear) on the boy’s face is palpable, adding a new dimension to the show that transcends the simple vibe of four men playing music. Other moments include some classic Bono headdress/blindfold/armband business (some would say wankery) in “Bullet the Blue Sky”, more than one instance of fetal position posturing, and a wonderful moment to close the show during which Larry Mullen Jr. plays the drums as the crowd continues singing the chorus of War‘s “40” that Bono had long since finished.
While it constitutes one of the best moments of the DVD, however, the inclusion of that particular song is one of the things that could potentially turn off the diehard U2 fans looking to purchase the DVD. You see, “40” is from the show in Chicago on the day before the rest of the show—on 10 May, a second performance of “Vertigo” ended the proceedings. To be sure, 9 May’s “40” does a much better job of finishing things off than a redundant repeat would, but its inclusion takes away from the idea that what we’re witnessing is a complete U2 show. The DVD also omits the 10 May performance of “Party Girl”, a little-known fan-favorite of a B-side that might have made the setlist a little more special—instead, it’s edited out so that we viewers can go straight from “Mysterious Ways” to “All Because of You”. The setlist may skew nicely toward U2’s early work, but apparently, it’s still about the hits.
Ignore the authenticity issue, however, and what we’ve got here is a well-filmed example of what a recent U2 show might be like, with a 5.1 channel mix that puts the viewer in the front row (that is, most of the audience noise is mixed to the back). The visual cuts are often discombobulating and quick, typical of director Hamish Hamilton, and it certainly won’t convert anyone who doesn’t already love U2, but it typifies nearly everything that the ideal U2 concert should contain, long monologues and all, in a city that the band obviously loves. “How long to sing this song?,” Bono asks at the end of “40”, echoing “Sunday Bloody Sunday”‘s sentiment to close the DVD. With Vertigo 2005: Live in Chicago as evidence, I’m inclined to think they’ll be singing “this song” for a long, long time to come.