[11 November 2009]
Loud, lavish, bright and shiny objects, self-righteous politicking, and the largest stage ever built do not necessarily add up to make for an extraordinary concert. For that to occur one would first require a band, and, more to the basic point, a band that performs well in a live context. Enter four famous musical lads from Ireland who each share a minimal penchant for playing live shows.
U2’s show in Norman, Oklahoma (the first in Norman in some 26 years, as Bono noted) - part of its well-publicized U2 360 Tour - was a near peerless affair because of the music, because of the band’s performance, and not so much because of the high ceremoniousness and hyper-spectacle of it all, however intriguing those aspects may have been. Indeed, some 60,000 U2 fans witnessed more of the band U2, ironically, in the confines of a football stadium, and while the band played upon “The Claw”, a quirky, massive, expansive in the round stage, or spaceship. This is, to be sure, U2 at their touring highpoint.
Errors were made by the band, but U2’s highly illustrious gig competed with The Rolling Stones’ exuberant, especial gigs during its A Bigger Bang Tour (2005-07). U2 displayed a similar intensity, and despite having played for years, no wear and tear was evident. The extras were nice but not required: U2’s show worked tonight because it was not necessarily the Bono show. A fair part of it was, but U2 as a functioning group proper came curiously into the fore here. Admittedly, it did not start so much in that vein; during the band’s initial song “Breathe”, from No Line on the Horizon (2009), Bono, ostensibly sans irony, raised his arms up grandly like Rio de Janeiro’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue, but as he proceeded into the lengthy two-hour set, Bono became less self-oriented (to the extent that such is accomplishable).
Bono’s inspirational and rather domineering stage presence tonight was not absolute in any sense, and this was a material change; during several extended, key moments the other band members reveled in pure, unabashed showiness too, and, to be sure, the audience noticed it. Such an “upstage” was most likely a well-planned gesture on the band’s part, and it did, in fact, work; for example, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. opened the show all by his lonesome, and with a relatively discreet, brief but efficacious drum solo (the lead-in percussiveness of No Line’s “Breathe”) that impressed and allured the welcoming, jubilant crowd; more particularly, the guitar technique and showmanship of the Edge unexpectedly took some attention away from Bono’s anthemic, emotive singing during several songs.
Actually, the Edge’s newfound star-power prowess occurred during the songs “Vertigo”, “Elevation”, “Breathe”, “Get on Your Boots”, the purposely drawn-out “Where the Streets Have No Name”, and, ironically, on the relatively soft sounds of “Unknown Caller” (the subtle guitar bit required for this song is critical indeed).
The Edge’s tricky and fastidious guitar riffs nearly became the center of attention, leaving Bono at times a bit of a caricature of himself – especially as he stood up behind Mullen’s drum kit looking for lovers in the stadium, as he did during both “Breathe” and “Where the Streets Have No Name”. During some of these songs the Edge either leaned in and out while standing still or, alternatively, paraded and danced about the stage in a Bono-like fashion. During both “Vertigo” and “Breathe” specifically the Edge’s guitar sound was incredibly and overwhelmingly emphatic, and the sheer physicality of his playing noticeably stood out: (The Edge rather aggressively moved his right arm as he strummed the principal riff to “Breathe.”)
But the major highlights were a memorable version of “City of Blinding Lights”, an overall idealistic song that has gained a considerable degree of capital specifically in America since it was prominently performed during the inaugural festivities for President Obama (it was one of his requests). Other standouts included a politically-conscious show of solidarity to Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned leader of Burma, during “Walk On” (with Bono on rhythm guitar), and a largely guitar-focused, rocking rendition of the James Bondish half-techno homage to amatory, intimate matters during “Get on Your Boots”. The Edge picked up an acoustic guitar during a version of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” and the band played emotional covers of “Stand by Me” and “Amazing Grace” while the somberness and thoughtful sobriety in Bono’s voice during the set’s final two songs, “With or Without You” and “Moment of Surrender” were a great way to close the night.
Some concerns included the techno remix of “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” which didn’t work tonight because Bono was far too nonchalant with his vocals, thus de-stressing important lyrics; instead, the song should have been performed in a semi-anthemic manner, and it could have been one of those pop anthems that U2 hoped would result from the new album, along with “Breathe”. Bono’s shameless pandering to the Oklahoma crowd was a bit much too, as was his loquacity during some songs, and he almost ruined “With or Without You” by stating “thank you” several times before the song was complete. The set featured some seven songs from No Line, and the majority of them went over incredibly well; the band could have played several other older, notable songs, but U2 can’t play everything. U2’s gig tonight really was majestic and stimulating because the band itself was out in the open and on display, with each member contributing in a recognizable, meaningful way. Bono may be the charming, stentorian lead singer, but he is not in any sense the whole of the band. U2’s show tonight will remain unforgettable indeed.