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"In general people put too much faith in the rich, the famous, the politicians, and not enough faith in themselves." — Bono



U2, Putting Its Sound Over Spectacle

- June 07, 2001

by David Segal

U2 sauntered onstage at the Fleet Center on Tuesday night like four lads who were early for a barbecue. In little hurry to impress, or even lift their instruments, they strode before 28,000 fans, then dawdled into position. There were no flash pots, spaceships or smoke-spewing gadgets to hail their entrance.

It was the first hint that U2's Elevation Tour, the summer's most anticipated concert event, gets the spectacle-to-music ratio exactly right. The show, which comes to MCI Center next week, is hardly a no-tech affair, but the gee-whizardry never threatens to overshadow or detract from the songs. This time around U2 won't be upstaged by its own stagecraft.

That happened during the band's 1997 "Pop Mart" tour, which spent a lot of energy and cash on an elaborate set designed, depending on your perspective, either to parody or celebrate American consumerism and the nation's passion for shopping and eating on the cheap. (The tour was announced in a Manhattan Kmart.) This time around, the self-described "greatest band on Earth" is putting the emphasis on the band and skipping most of what gave "Pop Mart" the feel of an ironic extravaganza.

Venue is destiny in the concert business, and U2's decision to forgo stadiums and stick to arenas has proven wise for everyone involved, particularly those who can afford the $ 130 price tag for some of the evening's best seats. Having learned to play to the rafters before 46,000 fans, this band can make a crowd half that size feel it's part of

"The stuff about being the greatest band in the world, you know where that comes from?" asked lead singer Bono, midway through the show, as he looked at several Irish flags scattered through the arena. "It comes from being Irish!"

Bono didn't say much else. Instead, he spent most of his time on a heart-shaped catwalk that jutted a few hundred feet into the audience, allowing him, reaching down, to high-five and croon while a good third of the way into the room. He started the evening prowling the stage in slow motion, a pace attempted in crowds this large and this high-paying only by legends and egomaniacs. Within 10 minutes, as the band played "Mysterious Ways," Bono was crawling on the ground and playfully kicking at the guitar strings of lead guitarist the Edge. By the show's end, he was running laps in a full-out sprint.

"All That You Can't Leave Behind," the band's latest album, anchors this show, and most of its songs thicken and soar in the shift from studio to arena. In part, that's because the decibel volume and visual busyness of a concert, not to mention the muddying acoustics of the Fleet Center, rendered it nearly impossible to understand Bono's lyrics -- some of which fall embarrassingly flat when you can make them out. "In New York summers get hot/ Well into the hundreds/ You can't walk around the block/ Without a change of clothing," is one couplet, from "New York," that sounds better the worse it sounds.

"Walk On" acquired an emotional fullness that it sneaks near but never quite snares on the album, and "Beautiful Day" sounded poised for canonization in the band's permanent repertoire. Only the gospel valentine "In a Little While" felt slighter live, largely because the Edge's spindly and soulful guitar riff nearly vanished in the mix.

The show demonstrated that U2 isn't in danger of becoming a nostalgia act, releasing new material only to justify the continued life of a touring franchise (example: the Rolling Stones). U2's latest songs have lured young listeners without boring those who swooned for the band in the early '80s.

Still, it was the '80s material that easily earned the evening's biggest reactions. The echoing opening notes of "Where the Streets Have No Name" provoked near-pandemonium. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" turned the crowd into a massive, emotive choir. By the end of the night the band had made room for "I Will Follow," "Bad," "With or Without You" and "Desire." During a reflective moment, Bono sang a few a cappella verses of the Beatles' "In My Life," and he tossed a few bars of "Get Up, Stand Up" into "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

The pyrotechnics were limited to strobe lights, 50-foot scrims and a handful of behind-the-stage video screens, which featured a slithery female silhouette during "Mysterious Ways" and flashed an assortment of colors and geometric patterns during other songs. Before "Bullet the Blue Sky," the first of a handful of encores, there was a video snippet of a Charlton Heston press conference in which the actor-turned-gun-rights advocate announces his credo. ("Any gun in the hands of a good man is a threat to no one except bad people.") Soon thereafter comes another display: a note that 676,000 Americans have been killed by guns since John Lennon was shot in 1980.

That lecture, and later a brief and far subtler pitch for Third World debt relief, were the only remnants of the thumping self-righteousness of U2's middle period. The band still knows how to wag a finger, but the men of U2 are proving their durability by reinventing themselves once again, this time as the rockers they were before heading into the electronica experiments of albums like "Pop" and "Zooropa." Their show suggests that arena rock isn't going to fade away or be overwhelmed by gimmickry. There's still an audience out there that wants nothing much grander than four guys and a couple of well-amplified guitars.

© The Washington Post Company, 2001.

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