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"A band is like a street gang. It makes sense when you're 20 and gets harder as you get older." — Edge

Still the one

- April 07, 2001

by Keith Spera

Though U2 won't pass through New Orleans on its current concert tour, a stop in Houston earlier this week proved the Irish rock quartet has restored its standing as a Band That Matters.

HOUSTON -- For two decades, the members of U2 never introduced themselves. The Irish quartet studiously avoided the classic rock cliche of identifying themselves onstage in front of adoring audiences that knew only too well who they were. The band's collective purpose -- to re-energize rock music -- was deemed more important than stroking individual egos.

But on Monday night at Houston's Compaq Center, during the fifth stop on U2's "Elevation Tour 2001," vocalist Bono took his time introducing the 15,000 in attendance to drummer Larry Mullen Jr., the "man who gave us our first, and last, and hopefully only job"; bassist Adam Clayton, "the poshest member of the band, the man who has the largest instrument in the band"; and guitarist The Edge, "the scientist of the band, the man
whose brain is so large he has to wear a hat."

Why the sudden break with U2 tradition? "For us," Bono explained to the faithful, "this is the reapplying-for-the-job tour."

He did not specify the job in question, but it was obvious: the job of a band that matters. Maybe even the band that matters the most.

>From 1985 to 1995, U2 was that band. From the watershed heart-and- soul stirring "The Joshua Tree" through the exotic dialects of "Achtung Baby" and the dazzling multi-media "Zoo TV" tour, Bono, The Edge, Clayton and Mullen made some of the most vital music in rock, infused with passion, spirit, intelligence and conscience.

But they lost their way on 1997's "Pop" CD. Rumored to be an electronica album, it did not live up to those expectations, or any other. The subsequent "PopMart" tour attempted to take "Zoo TV" one step further, unsuccessfully playing up irony and humor at the expense of the music.

Relative to U2's accustomed level of success, "Pop" flopped. Thinking they would fill stadiums as they did on "Zoo TV," they found themselves playing to many empty seats; in New Orleans in 1997, barely 17,000 "PopMart" shoppers turned out at the Superdome, a likely factor in the band's decision to skip the city on this tour.

The comeback trail

But U2 band members learn from their mistakes. They reconnected with producer Daniel Lanois, architect of their best albums, to craft last year's "All That You Can't Leave Behind." Not quite the equal of "Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby," it comes close. The full album was released too late to qualify for the 2001 Grammy awards, but its pre- release lead single, "Beautiful Day," did. It swept all three awards for which it was nominated, including the prestigious record and song of the year.

Bono and company were determined that "Elevation Tour 2001" would atone for the excesses and failures of "PopMart," as a successful tour would complete their comeback. When the recording of "Pop" ran behind schedule, it cut into rehearsal time for "PopMart," resulting in ragged shows early on the tour. This time around, they tuned up for "Elevation"
with three weeks of rehearsals in Miami.

By booking themselves into arenas for the first time in a decade, most dates on the tour sold out well in advance; additional shows were added to meet demand in several cities, despite the premium prices fans are charged for the privilege of seeing U2 in arenas. (Lower balcony reserved seats at the Compaq Center, formerly the Summit, were $131; a general admission floor ticket was a relative bargain at $50.)

On "PopMart," the musicians were reduced to props on the vast stage, dwarfed by an enormous video wall, a towering golden arch and a 40-foot mirror ball lemon. "Elevation 2001," as longtime U2 stage designer Willie Williams told Rolling Stone, was about going "forward to basics."

In pre-tour online interviews, both The Edge and Bono were on message. "The subject matters of both our last tours included the idea of spectacle itself," Bono told launch.com. "This one is about the songs."

"It will be a music-centric show," The Edge promised. "This is no big concept. While we utilize some of the things we learned over the last 10 years, it's about the music."

And so it was. With longtime manager Paul McGuinness keeping watch from the sound board, the band strode onstage in Houston and lit into "Elevation" with the arena's house lights still up, catching much of the crowd by surprise. It was the ultimate no-frills entry; the effect was immediate and electric, and carried through the second song, the celebratory "Beautiful Day."

The modest stage was open on all sides. A heart-shaped catwalk surrounded it and extended halfway across the arena floor; fans clustered both inside and outside the perimeter of the heart, so when Bono ventured onto the catwalk he seemed to wade through the outstretched arms.

Minimal rattle and hum

In this intimate setting, U2 spent two tours celebrating its music, with a heavy emphasis on "All That You Can't Leave Behind" accompanied by a representative sampling of past glories. The minimalist visuals -- each of the four black-and-white video screens above the stage was dedicated to continuous footage of one musician -- were stylish accents to the
presentation, not the focus.

All flash and pop, all rattle and hum, were kept to a minimum. The four musicians worked as if they had something to prove, spending much of the night in a tight cluster around Mullen's drums, barely 10 feet apart. Their camaraderie was obvious. Bono and The Edge engaged in a duel during "Until the End of the World," with Bono ending up on his back, swatting at the strings of his bandmate's guitar. Their face-to-face duet during the soul testimonial "In a Little While" spoke of the bond between these two longtime collaborators.

Throughout the night, The Edge mixed up the tones and attitude of his guitar, ranging from the clipped fuzz-tone chords of "Elevation" to the siren call of "I Will Follow," from the spikes and jagged edges of a powerhouse "Until the End of the World" to the elegiac chimes on a gorgeous reading of "Bad." Mullen, the most outspoken advocate of the back-to-basics approach, reveled in the reconnection with his bandmates, driving them all night. And Clayton, U2's secret weapon, filled out the bottom end with aplomb.

The set contained a few surprises. This is how Bono introduced "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," which the band co-wrote with Salman Rushdie: "This is from the soundtrack to 'The Million Dollar Hotel,' which sold about 17 copies. So for the 17 of you . . ."

He took a turn on keyboards for "The Sweetest Thing," his B-side love song for his wife. Compared to more sophisticated recent fare, "New Year's Day" and other early anthems came off as simplistic and unadorned, like looking back on a great novelist's high school rantings. But when they charged from "I Will Follow" into the military beat of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," the unbridled energy was impossible to resist.

Politics and social commentary were kept to a minimum. During the "Zoo TV" tour, Bono routinely dialed up the White House onstage; this time around, President Bush wasn't even mentioned in his home state. The most political moment came at the opening of the encore, with news footage of National Rifle Association mouthpiece Charlton Heston leading into
"Bullet the Blue Sky."

The set was not without the occasional misstep. "New York," the weakest track on "All That You Can't Leave Behind," was no more interesting onstage than on record; those four minutes could have been better spent, perhaps on "Pride In the Name of Love" or "Angel of Harlem," two of the set's more noteworthy omissions. Clayton's bass disappeared from the mix during "I Will Follow," making it thin- sounding. And "The Fly" was an anticlimactic ending to the regular set, especially given the ecstatic "Where the Streets Have No Name" that preceded it by two songs.

Numero uno Bono

But the strength of Bono's charisma alone was enough to overcome these minor shortcomings. He is the sort of front man who loses himself in the moment, but is still very much aware of what he is doing. As a light cast his shadow on a sheer screen during "New York," he held his fingers behind his head and his microphone aloft to make a shadow puppet Statue of Liberty. While probing the upper level seats with a hand-held spotlight during "Bullet the Blue Sky," he illuminated an American flag hanging from the rafters while repeating, "Outside it's America."

Since he is accustomed to working the biggest rooms, Bono's actions were that much more effective in an arena. He still likes to make one-on-one connections with fans. At the tip of the heart catwalk, he bent down, took a fan's camera, snapped a couple of shots and handed it back. He pulled a young woman out of the audience for a slow dance during "Bad,"
and welcomed a male crowd surfer with a hug. During an encore reading of "With or Without You," he crouched down to sing directly to fans, then repeatedly urged the upper balcony to "give it to me."

There were flashes of his swaggering "Zoo TV''-era "Fly" persona, but he did not hesitate to wear his heart on his sleeve. "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" was dedicated to the late INXS vocalist Michael Hutchence, "a friend we lost along the way"; The Edge supplied a falsetto background to Bono's lead.

Bono was a compendium of pop quotes, vamping on Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" in "Discotheque," slipping a few lines of Bob Marley's "Get Up Stand Up" into "Sunday Bloody Sunday," repeating the chorus of "Ruby Tuesday" in "Bad" and parts of David Bowie's "Young Americans" in
"Bullet the Blue Sky."

During the encore, he spotted an Irish flag hanging from a box suite above the arena's upper deck. He asked for it to be tossed down to the stage. When the owners hesitated, Bono quipped, "The Irish might be at the top of the class, but they're not the smartest in the class." Finally the flag made its way to the stage ("The rock star gets his way," Bono noted).

"I'm going to tell you about this flag. I used to feel great sorrow, I used to feel shame," he said, in an apparent reference to The Troubles that long plagued his homeland. "Because of some brave men and women over the last few years, I take great pride in this flag."

He then opened "One," the band's meditation on solidarity, in a moment that was vintage U2. When it was over, he thanked the audience "for following us down this road these last few years. Thank you for giving us a great life. Thank you for spending your hard-earned cash on a rock

And with that, they wound down the night with "Walk On," a statement of courage and resolve from "All That You Can't Leave Behind."

A fan inside the heart held aloft a sign that read, "Yes, You've Got the Job!" Few in attendance would argue. The band members that came together as Irish schoolboys, conquered the world, went too far, took a step back and reconsidered have found themselves on top of the world once again.

© Times-Picayune, 2001.

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