[20 November 2006]
A rock band simply cannot survive for three decades unless its members possess tremendous chemistry. In an age where albums are tweaked and artificially synched, recordings are often poor indications of this chemistry. When it comes to judging the way a band plays and stays together, there is no greater proving ground than the live show. Few bands in history have enjoyed a reputation for live excellence comparable to that of U2. On a new concert DVD, Zoo TV Live from Sydney, the band members demonstrate how one of their most famous concert tours helped establish that reputation and fueled one of the most prolific rock careers in history.
After a band has existed for several decades, critics can sometimes look back on the group’s work and identify different stylistic phases. In the case of U2, one can identify three distinct periods. The first found an eager and idealistic band in the ‘80s experimenting with a new sonic approach that culminated in the classic album The Joshua Tree. The second, which carried the band through the ‘90s, stretched from the excellent Achtung Baby to the poorly received Pop, and the third, which began in the new millennium, saw a group reinventing itself on All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. The Zoo TV DVD comes from the second period, a time when U2 was using its increased celebrity status to mock the excesses of major media, and the band’s satirical touch directs the concert.
U2 has four members, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr., but the concert DVD stars a fifth member of sorts: a massive stage featuring several hundred video monitors. This awesome stage is the focus of the camera’s attention at the beginning of the video. After showing a montage that includes video footage of people striking giant bass drums, the sound system launches into the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and the band members take the stage.
U2’s performance can be neatly divided into three sections and an encore. Bono assumes a different persona for each section, and he uses these characters as part of his satire. In the first section, he is “The Fly”, a character who wears large sunglasses and shiny black clothing and who mocks the excessive lewdness of the traditional rock singer. In the second section, he is merely himself, as he and the other band members relocate to a smaller, monitorless stage, where they deliver mostly acoustic versions of some of their songs. In the last section, Bono plays the part of a fighter pilot. He begins the encore by donning red horns and makeup to play the devilish Mr. Macphisto, but he tosses away the props before the last few songs and finishes the show as himself.
Musically, Zoo TV Live from Sydney shows a band at the absolute height of its power. Each member puts out an excellent performance, and everyone gels together. The band’s energy level throughout the concert is almost unbelievable. During the approximately one and a half hours before the encore, the group takes only a few short pauses while hurtling through physically and musically demanding songs. Despite this grueling show, the instrumentalists never falter, and Bono’s voice holds out well throughout the songs.
Highlights on the disc abound. Some of these are visual, as in the opening footage or in the rapid-fire messages that flash on the screen during “The Fly”; phrases such as “Everything You Know Is Wrong” and “Watch More TV” flash rapidly on the monitors, criticizing the extent to which television moderates public discourse. Other highlights are musical, such as the stirring acoustic songs, which, in addition to the acknowledged classic “Angel of Harlem”, include the sometimes-overlooked love song “Stay (Faraway So Close)” and a cover of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love”. Long-established U2 concert favorites such as “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, which come at the end of the main show, are especially powerful.
One of the elements of U2’s Zoo TV stage show that distinguishes it from other live acts is its thematic consistency and symbolic content. The show features over-the-top production, but the larger-than-life presentation serves a deeper purpose. By fully exploiting their available technological capabilities, Bono and the band satirized the messages and the strategies of broadcast media. At one point in the concert, the monitors start showing a cable television feed, and Bono flips through the channels criticizing what he sees until he finally settles on a cricket match.
The Sydney Zoo TV concert appeared on VHS in 1994, but the new DVD is a must-purchase for U2 fans. The sound and video quality are excellent throughout the show. The DVD is available in two formats, a single disc concert-only version, and a two-disc limited edition featuring documentaries, bonus tracks, and extras such as a video confessional and karaoke for the song, “Numb”. These extras make purchasing this already-outstanding concert even more appealing. Even people who don’t consider themselves U2 fans will find much to appreciate, and maybe even love, on this disc. Few bands possess the consistency, the chemistry, the musical energy, and the political depth of U2. All of these elements were in full force on the band’s Zoo TV tour, and they make the concert’s DVD practically essential.