By Eileen Murphy
U2, at Madison Square Garden. Sunday, June 17.
U2’s application for the job of best band in the world has come back — stamped "Approved."
Any questions? Just ask any of the 20,000 fans who grooved to the music last Sunday night in Madison Square Garden. The Dublin quartet brought their Elevation Tour to New York for their first area gig in four years. Expertly mixing classics like "With or Without You" and "Bad" with new material from the album "All That You Can’t Leave Behind," the band fashioned a heady — one might even risk corniness and say elevating — concert experience.
From the moment they bounded onto the stage to perform the tour’s title song, to the finale two hours later, the veteran rockers played as if their lives depended on it.
With the houselights up, the band ran
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through the crowd and bounded onto a stripped-down stage, which was encircled by a heart-shaped runway. Gone were the Trabant cars of the Zoo-TV Tour, and the annoying McDonald’s-type Pop arch. No belly dancers, no lemons, no silver lame costumes, no annoying MacPhisto-like
characters. Just four guys on a stage — a garage band, assuming the garage housed a collection of Jaguars.
The Edge, wearing a sequinned T-shirt emblazoned with the number two, played his trademark soaring chords on his guitar with gusto, while Adam Clayton, cool and laid-back as ever, kept the bass line steady. Larry Mullen Jr., who seems to have a portrait aging in an attic somewhere, shone on heavily percussive numbers like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Desire."
Bono used the runway throughout the show, sprinting, crawling, leaping and occasionally falling flat on his back. During "Until the End of the World," Edge and Bono engaged in a semi-physical duel, with Bono kicking wildly at Edge’s guitar. The handful of video screens at the back of the stage were used sparingly and to great effect: for a dancer’s silhouette during "Mysterious Ways," and for the signature red background that heralds "Where the Streets Have No Name."
Bono seemed to crave a physical connection with the audience, constantly reaching out to fans, playing with them. At one point, he even launched himself off the corner of the runway, to be held aloft by the crowd. This desire for physical contact harkened back to the band’s early concerts, during which Bono would fling himself into the audience, much to the alarm of his bandmates. As it was, the security staff hovered nervously whenever Bono got too close to the adoring throng.
For some reason — call it early mid-life crisis or perhaps a looming school reunion — Bono seemed focused on the passage of time. Twenty years was a recurring theme during the night.
"Twenty years ago, we came to America and played in places like the Mudd Club and the Ritz," Bono recalled.
"One night we played to just 11 people. But we played as if our lives depended on it."
Bono’s mild obsession is understandable. Twenty years is a long time for any band to stay on top. An entire generation has come of age since U2 performed their seminal 1983 concert "Live at Red Rocks," and the band vies for its attention alongside acts as diverse as Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit and Destiny’s Child. And, as Paul Simon noted, every generation throws its own heroes up the pop charts.
U2 acknowledged this incontrovertible truth last October by appearing on MTV’s teen-oriented "TRL" show. The question hanging in the air was, could U2 still cut the mustard?
Asked, and answered.
"That’s how we’re going to play tonight," Bono crowed above the deafening roar of the crowd, "as if our lives depended on it."
There wasn’t time for a lot of talking on Sunday night. U2 was a band on a mission. Obviously stung by the lukewarm fan and critical reaction to 1997’s "Pop" album and PopMart tour, they got down to business quickly.
One of the things they haven’t left behind is their sense of humor. Pounding home the 20 years theme, U2 had their deejay play the opening verse of "Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band," shortly before they took the stage. For non-Beatle fans out there, the song begins, "It was 20 years ago today/Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play./They’ve been going in and out of style . . ."
Standout numbers included "Sunday Bloody Sunday," during which Bono accepted an Irish flag from an audience member, and spread it out on the runway.
"I like it better lying down," he said
The set list included some of the best songs from the band’s extensive catalog, reaching back a couple of decades for the youthful defiance of "I Will Follow," and tracing their evolution from "Boy" — the name of their first album — to men.
The songs from ATYCLB, including "Beautiful Day," "In a Little While" and "Kite" fit seamlessly into the show, though the best, by far, was the sublime "Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of." Bono and The Edge blended their voices beautifully as the song built to a gorgeous crescendo on the final verse, "And if your way should falter/Along this stony path . . ."
Known as a band with strong political viewpoints, U2 couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a few large statements. A retooled "Bullet the Blue Sky" was introduced by a chilling clip of NRA spokesman Charlton Heston rambling on about guns being neither good nor bad as images of dead bodies and gun violence flashed on the video screens.
One statement that seemed a bit out of place was Bono’s tribute to the band’s manager, Paul McGuinness, who was celebrating his birthday. McGuinness was sitting with celebrity guest Prince, who sported the word "slave" on his cheek.
"I asked Prince why he had written ‘slave’ on his face," Bono said.
Political indictment of American racial inequality? Ironic reference to his love life? Nah.
"Prince said to me that he no longer owned his own world," Bono explained. "That the corporations owned him.
"But thanks to Paul McGuinness, that didn’t happen to U2," he crowed. "We own the corporations!"
Fan response was a bit lukewarm at that. But, hey, let’s here it for corporate finance.
Though the evening featured songs from every stage of the band’s development, U2 seemed a bit ambivalent about their "Pop" experience. They left out their two hits from the that album, "Staring at the Sun" and "Discotheque," opting instead to play the more obscure "Gone." Surprising, also, by its absence was the ubiquitous "The Sweetest Thing." Other omissions rankled: who wouldn’t trade "Desire" for "Ultraviolet"? The well-worn "Pride [In the Name of Love]" for "Trip Through Your Wires" or "All I Want Is You" or "Running to Stand Still"?
Still, in the pantheon of U2 concerts, this one was near the top. The boys are back in town and on the map, and they want everyone to know it. There are two shows this weekend, Thursday and Friday at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, which have been sold out for months. One word of warning for fans desperate enough to buy from scalpers: lots of people got burned at the Garden on Sunday, paying big bucks for counterfeit tickets.
A dejected Lisa from Westchester said she’d paid $400 for two tickets that later turned out to be fake.
But she was still hopeful, as she looked for someone else selling extras.
"I love this band," she said. "It’s not like they come around every year or anything. This is special."
Judging by Sunday night’s concert, it’s no wonder they got the job.