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.
COLDPLAY VS. U2
Members of Coldplay have made no secret of their ambitions to become U2, the self-proclaimed world's biggest band. " With both in town over the weekend, Tribune Music Critic Greg Kot compares the challenger with the champ.
Singer Chris Martin is the quiet, shy type but it works for Gwyneth, so who are we to criticize?
Bono: Even a pope might be hard-pressed to rival Bono when it comes to world-wide fame.
Forthcoming album "X&Y" sounds like Coldplay's answer to U2's "Joshua Tree."
"How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" sounds like U2 trying to revisit past glories.
Promoters say Coldplay is worth 35,000 to 50,000 tickets here -- a budding stadium act.
(U2) Will sell out United Center six times this year, the biggest post-Rolling Stones draw in rock.
Young, hungry and with the songs to back it up, Coldplay's coronation appears imminent.
Peerless on stage, U2 is in retro mode -- another "Achtung Baby!"-style reinvention is in order.
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