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"For every mad idea of Bono's, he drags us somewhere interesting. And he benefits when we hold him back from where the ice is thin." — Adam

U2 elevates rock to better, more important place

- June 15, 2001

by Alan K. Stout

PHILADELPHIA - U2 is the greatest rock band in the world.

I do not hesitate at all when making that statement. And I am not clarifying it in any way. U2 is the best.


The group plays brilliant songs, consistently challenges its audience, stirs the heart and raises spirits. And on Monday night at the First Union Center in Philadelphia, they did all of that, and more. They rescued this often disillusioned ol' music writer from a confusing period of professional languor, and in two dazzling, passionate hours, they - and their incredibly savvy audience - may have restored my faith in the power and the goodness of rock 'n' roll.

The band, which took the stage in a low-key fashion - casually strolling onto the stage with all of the house lights on - opened the show with a zingy performance of the new "Elevation." The rhythmic "Beautiful Day" followed, and for the next 120 minutes, stellar musicianship, charismatic showmanship and crafty songwriting combined to offer an engaging, entertaining and sometimes even enlightening evening of music.

U2's staging - although stripped down from past tours - was still impressive. A heart-shaped catwalk stretched almost halfway out across the arena, and the set was accompanied by brilliant strobe lighting and video screens that rose from behind the stage throughout the show. Silhouettes of alluring dancing women appeared on the screens during a spirited performance of "Mysterious Ways," and lead singer Bono later joked about playing Philadelphia for the first time 20 years ago in a small club before a crowd of 20 people.

"Nothing much has changed," he said with a smile, standing amid the roaring audience of 20,000. He added, however, that he was somewhat serious, and that the band was enjoying its current tour as much as ever. He followed with a squeaky but heartfelt a cappella version of The Beatles "In My Life."

Musically, U2 was also on target. The sound was clear and pristine, Bono sang well and guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen were polished and precise. What also made the show so special and even unique was the fact that - despite U2's incredible body of work - songs from the band's potent new album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," were often met with equal enthusiasm as older favorites.

"All That You Can't Leave Behind" is a marvelous album, and U2's audience seems to know it. Songs such as "Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of," "Kite," "In a Little While" and "New York" were all met with cheers, appreciation and even sing-alongs.

The same goes for the U2 classics.

A punchy, punky performance of "I Will Follow" was greeted with pure pandemonium: Irish flags and other banners waved throughout the arena, fans pumped their arms and jumped in unison while also avoiding the tired, silly, old and idiotic cliches of body surfing, slam dancing and moshing. U2's crowd - obviously smart enough to realize you can still be highly energetic without feeling the need to be kicked in the face - also seems to know when they're listening to music with substance.

An extended, ardent performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" also energized the crowd and the entire band stood near the end of the catwalk for a stripped-down and soulful rendition of "Desire." A moody rendition of "Bad" also brought a roar from the audience and a fiery performance of "Where The Streets Have No Name" was also delivered with zest. The set ended with the stirring and meaningful "Pride."

During the first encore,"Bullet The Blue Sky," Bono - ever politically and socially conscious - subtly made mention of the execution of Timothy McVeigh, which had occurred earlier in the day. With the video screens showing images of the misuse of guns and domestic destruction, Bono - while keeping the traditional melody of the song - changed its lyrics:

"Strapped into the chair ... on a closed-circuit TV, before an invitation audience only, we watch as Timothy ... (pause) ... runs into the arms ... (pause) ... of America."

The line - which seemed to take no particular stance on the execution - drew a roar from the capacity crowd.

Another poet had spoken.

The encores continued, with exceptional performances of "With Or Without You," "The Fly" and "One.' The show closed with "Walk On," another gem from the new album which also just happens to be one of the best songs ever written.

(If you don't know why rock radio didn't play "Walk On" when it was released as a single earlier this year, just call the program director at your favorite radio station and ask. I'm sure they'll tell you they just couldn't squeeze it in between Britney, Eminem, the latest boy band to come out of Disney World or the latest garbage dished out by Fred Durst. Or perhaps they'll tell you it just didn't "test well." You can then feel free to tell them that it's "testing" just fine as the closing number in front of 20,000 people a night in arenas across America.)

U2's stunning show in Philadelphia was more than just a rock concert. It was a statement. It was a testament that arena rock can still rock with a purpose.

Unlike even The Rolling Stones - whose shows feel more corporate and nostalgia-fueled every time they tour and whose audience has become more and more lethargic - U2 still has something important to say and its audience is still incredibly vibrant.

The great Bruce Springsteen, who stirred things up a bit recently with "American Skin," also remains an important voice for the collective conscience of this country. But while Bruce toured without a new album, songs from U2's latest record were often among some of their show's highlights.

And what a refreshing difference it was to see U2 deploring the misuse of guns on their video screens, while useless punks like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and Eminem glorified shootouts and killings on those same type screens last summer on their horrific Up In Smoke Tour.

U2 continues to do things right.

U2 is the best rock band in the world.

And, in what is clearly one of the most boring periods in pop music history, U2 is rock's living and breathing salvation.

I do not hesitate at all when I make those comments. I will not clarify them in any way.

And - after viewing Monday night's stunning concert in Philadelphia - it will take one hell of a band to change my mind.

© Times Leader, 2001.

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