Opening Act(s): The Pixies
Zoo Station, The Fly, Even Better Than The Real Thing, Mysterious Ways, One, Until The End Of The World, Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World, Angel Of Harlem-Dancing Queen, Satellite Of Love, Bad-All I Want Is You-Bullet The Blue Sky, Running To Stand Still, Where The Streets Have No Name, Pride (In The Name Of Love), I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Encore(s): With Or Without You, Love Is Blindness.
The Sacramento Bee
‘New’ U2 turns its music into a gimmick
by David Barton, Pop Music Critic
“Everything you know is wrong” read the dozen or so video screens that graced the stage at U2’s long-awaited concert Friday night at Arco Arena. What we knew before the show started was that U2 was a great, skillful and trustworthy rock band: Friday’s show indicated that perhaps we were wrong.
Even before U2 hit the stage, the word was that the group, revered for its spare, dynamic and passionate shows, would be trying something different after nearly five years away from the concert stage. So when the four band members arrived in a storm of strobing lights and flashing video screens, six gaily painted cars suspended along the back of the stage, the sold-out audience of 16,000 was prepared for surprises.
But what was most surprising - and - distressing - about the show was how ill-fitting the new, “fun” role would prove to be for the band.
Over the next 95 minutes, the four Irishmen floundered through a show in which they tried to shake off their past in the first half, with eight straight songs from their recent “Achtung Baby” album, and then tried to recapture it with nine more songs from their previous three albums (their first three albums were completely ignored).
The evening’s theme was announced early: Of the multitude of words and phrases flashing on the video screens during the second song, “The Fly,” one stood out: “Rock and roll is entertainment.”
That phrase was a cold contradiction of the band’s approach for its first decade, when the group insisted that rock ‘n’ roll at its best is more than entertainment, that it can inspire, not just divert, and that it can provide something approaching a communion, not just a good time.
But another in the spray of messages dealt soothingly with that contradiction: “Contradiction is balance,” it read, thus neatly excusing the band. And the phrase on which the song ended was unambiguous: “Watch more television.” But that was not a contradiction, since the group and its video monitors were making sure we did just that.
Were they being ironic? It’s possible. But the show was hardly proof of that. Instead, it was loaded with cheap pandering to the MTV audience with literal allusions to the bands videos (including a belly dancer during “Mysterious Ways”) and dumb stunts that undercut the essence of its songs.
Bending over backward to achieve an uncharacteristic party-hearty ambiance, Bono pulled rawk ‘n’ rawl stunts such as spraying the audience with a bottle of champagne, a move worthy of a Sammy Hagar or Motley Crue but which literally backfired on Bono when he sprayed himself instead of the audience.
The problem with the special effects and Bono’s boorish bonhomie was that it took the emphasis away from the music, sapping what had always been one of U2’s greatest strengths: its no-frills, gimmick-free approach to its music. This show consisted of almost nothing but gimmicks. The rest of the band, once equals with Bono, disappeared into the cluttered visuals.
Not that they were particularly worth hearing: The Edge’s guitar, when it could be heard clearly, wasn’t impressive, and on “Bullet the Blue Sky,” once his showcase, he came up with a monotonous solo that didn’t even hint at the greatness of the original. Likewise, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. gave the same song a stiff funk bottom that stilted its once-sinuous groove.
Even if the playing had been better, the sound was awful, with the lower frequencies so loud that the guitar textures were lost a good portion of the time and Bono’s vocal weakness - he declared himself “sick” at the start of the show - was compounded by his simple struggle to be heard.
The show was also almost completely lacking in any of the righteous outrage that was once a staple, for better or worse, of any U2 show. Even the news that Gov. Wilson had denied clemency for murderer Robert Alton Harris went unnoted by Bono, who had last toured as a virtual spokesman for Amnesty International, which opposes capital punishment. (A portion of Friday night’s show was taped for broadcast as part of Monday night’s AIDS benefit concert in London. The concert will be aired in Sacramento at 8 p.m. on Channel 40.)
Now, Bono’s past political posturings could be irritating, inducing as much eye-rolling as head-nodding. But U2’s songs were always delivered in a context of political concern, and without that context the songs that composed the second half lost their meaning, something the brief film clip of Martin Luther King Jr. inserted into “Pride (in the Name of Love)” couldn’t remedy.
It was fitting that the highlight of the show was a moment in which the four moved to an island in the middle of the arena floor, where Mullen played congas and the band tossed off a ragged-but-right version of “Angel of Harlem” (with a chorus of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”!), briefly rekindling the sense of camaraderie and musical veracity that the rest of the show so patently lacked.
But the second half of the show turned sour quickly, with half-hearted versions of “Bad” and “Running To Stand Still,” dark, anguished songs about drug addiction, as well as “Bullet the Blue Sky,” about American arms dealing. They’re great songs, but run through as “greatest hits” (along with the more optimistic “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With Or Without You”), and shorn of the context they had on the “Joshua Tree” tour of 1987, they were worse than meaningless.
For example, on the final rap on “Bullet,” in which Bono recounts a Third World village attacked by a government using American weapons, the rap was not only cut short, but at the final line - “Howling, the women and children/They run into the arms of America” - a star-struck young woman leapt onto the stage and threw her arms around Bono, making for an ironic and jarringly inadvertent reinterpretation of the song.
Has U2, like most big rock acts, accepted the notion that rock ‘n’ roll is just entertainment? If, as the current buzz has it, U2 is “reinventing itself” and wants to escape its past, it would do better simply to ignore these songs, not make a mockery of them.
At bottom, the members of U2 still haven’t found what they’re looking for. And Friday night, they didn’t just seem farther away from it than ever - they seemed to have stopped trying altogether.