"It's a record about looking for some kind of transcendence as well as trash."
-- Bono, on Pop
Review: U2 - Earls Court, London, Aug. 18, 2001
August 21, 2001
Judas betraying Jesus, the "troubles" in Northern Ireland past and present, heroin addiction and gun-running in South America. All in the space of just over two hours.
Never could it be suggested that U2 shows lack a widescreen worldview, a genuine emotional tug, all told creating an incessant spectacle. And that's despite this Earls Court concert being just the latest in a mammoth worldwide trawl set to put the band in the record books.
Ten years ago, Bono and his three less culpable childhood friends were lampooned by the pious, cooler then cool music press for being, well, pious and politically opinionated.
Wearing cowboy hats while waving white flags and much talk (in an American accent) of apartheid, the Bible and "f*cking the revolution," a chest exploding with emotion, was not considered a commendable agenda for a rock star. And perhaps it still isn't.
However, U2's renaissance in the nineties, as they sought to replace ham with irony, industrial with industry, has allowed a redressing of the balance. Rock and roll was, and should be, about inciting and inspiring, pioneering and protesting, particularly now, when the ceiling is falling in on a lousy procession of say nothing, mean nothing guitar bands, the pointless, mind-numbing pop infestation and culture of self-serving celebrity.
Yes, U2 are still banging on, and with activism against the world eating itself finally embraced by the likes of Radiohead, R.E.M. and the Beastie Boys, it would seem that being pictured with the Pope, taking calls from Bill Clinton and getting holed-up with world leaders as corporate smashing explode outside has some worth after all.
Either way, it comes as no surprise that this show -- beyond the musical vision -- circles the smoking bonfires of the collapsing peace process, Jubilee 2000 and the appetite for arms within the superpowers. Equally resonant and disturbingly well-publicised is the rather saddening reality that Bono's father is on his death bed.
Having worked their way through the punk energy, rock and roll bluster, humour and excess of their previous incarnations and the ensuing, beyond ostentatious stage pyrotechnics, the gimmick of the Elevation World Tour is that there is no gimmick. Much like this year's rather innocuous All That You Can't Leave Behind, everything is stripped-back.
The house lights stay on, the screens off, at the start, providing the somewhat bizarre spectacle of the band almost rehearsing, whilst unleashing a tremendously relentless -- despite being aired in an aircraft hanger -- opening sequence of "Elevation," "Beautiful Day," "Until the End of the World" and "New Year's Day."
The show is an intensely captivating experience, featuring some of the most uplifting populist rock music from the last twenty years, and a charismatic, edgy and passionate to the point of madness delivery from Bono, who, when not singing at the sky, is crawling on his knees, an urgent conduit to the heart of this audience.
U2 have refined their enviable back-catalogue well. They unearth the scarred urgency of the ancient "I Will Follow" and the drug and sonic highs and lows of a magnificent "Bad." They give "Desire" an acoustic reworking on the ingenious "heart" walkway, and pile on the bombast for "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
Elsewhere, there is almost wall-to-wall drama, in the squalling blitz of "Bullet the Blue Sky," the heaven opening introduction and explosion of "Where the Streets Have No Name," a Joy Division embellished "With or Without You" and an emotionally draining "One."
Significantly, and with the exception of a guitar pedal too far abomination of "The Fly," it's only on material from the new long-player that the pressure drops, particularly on the listless "In a Little While," a meandering "Stuck in a Moment" and a take on "New York" that is more overblown than the city itself.
But this show delivers on so many levels, transcending the limitations of such a vacuous, factory-line experience. This may just be U2's strength, but "Kite" -- prefaced with a dedication to the ailing Bobby Hewson -- jets through the vast atmosphere, while a brilliant curtain-closing dispatch of "Walk On" again unravels the band's perpetual drive for political awareness and progress.
As they rock out with beguiling, primitive freedom, lines such as "you're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has seen, a place that has to be believed to be seen" are silhouetted on the backdrop, again raising the spectre of Northern Ireland.
Even more direct is "Bullet the Blue Sky," with Bono ferociously lambasting the arms dealings of America, the U.K., Russia, France and China, and an inevitable speech about ending Third World debt, in which he suggests the battle is far from over and that intelligent thinking, not civil disobedience, will out.
When so much has been said about and thrown at U2, in a career of quite fascinating twists and turns, they still demand and inspire debate, contention and alarming passion. Unlike most of their peers, they bid to make things happen. Whether any of the 18,000 here actually listened to the stricken pleas and rants of a 40-year-old who may well be "the last of the rock stars" is academic.
This was some show.
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