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"The songs can hurt, and the songs can uplift. But they don't have to be reverent." — Bono

U2 Returns to Rock-Solid Basics

- March 26, 2001

by Jim Farber

U2 showed us their notion of roughing it on the opening night of their "Elevation" tour Saturday.

Unlike the band's last two razzle-dazzle road shows, this one (which won't hit New York until June) shuns special effects, downplays dazzling lights, displays no meaningful costumes and indulges no irony.

Don't get the wrong idea. It wasn't exactly like a garage band playing CBGB. But the show, held at a mall-like, 20,000-seat hall unfortunately named the National Car Rental Arena, was as close to that as this mega-band is going to get. The result made good on the event's simple intentions — to throw the focus back on the band's performance and to boldface their heady treasure of songs.

The "Elevation" tour also represents U2's return to arenas after nearly a decade playing cavernous stadiums. To underscore the show as U2's user-friendly reach-out-and-touch tour, they featured a large, arching catwalk so members could saunter near a significant number of fans. No wonder the stage sometimes suggested a U2 petting zoo, with listeners pawing band members for all they were worth.

The band earned their affection. Kicking off with the new cut "Elevation," U2 immediately displayed the charisma and chops that first made them stars. The 21-song, two-hour set moved smoothly from more intimate passages to flag-waving anthems. Hits dominated the night, again stressing this as U2's down-to-earth, crowd-pleaser tour, in contrast to 1997's overblown "PopMart" show.

The strategy wasn't without consequence. It emphasized that U2's time as sonic innovators and envelope-pushers has past. They're reliable, middle-aged craftsmen now, the same point made by their new CD, "All That You Can't Leave Behind."

That album, which spawned the Grammy-grabbing Best Song and Record of the Year for "Beautiful Day," represents a certain kind of comeback for U2. It's their most likable work in a decade, since "Achtung Baby." Clearly, the album lacks the visionary quality of the band's peak. But its songs pass the ultimate quality test: They're so solid, other performers could cover them.

New numbers provided many of the night's highlights. In "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," Bono sang with a conviction that underscored the R&B power of the melody. It's a tune that Aretha Franklin or Clarence Carter could have sung in the '60s. Likewise, for "In a Little While" Bono found a falsetto that could convince Al Green he should cut his own version.

As a writer, Bono can still turn a mean phrase. In "Walk On," he sang, "Some things must be believed to be seen." Nice.

The frontman didn't do much ad-libbing however. Other than a few niceties, and some band introductions, he let the music do the talking. Likewise, the band didn't fiddle with many arrangements, keeping the focus on songs over musicianship.

U2 emphasized this yet again by accenting their best-known material. They reached all the way back to their first hit, the 21-year old "I Will Follow," chasing it with such '80s touchstones as "New Year's Day" and "Sunday, Bloody Sunday." Highlights of their most ambitious days also turned up, like "Bad," "Where the Streets Have No Name," and "Bullet the Blue Sky."

That last song in particular showed U2's more daring side, with The Edge firing off a rocket launcher of sound. In subtler ways, the guitarist also showed his smarts in the rubbery riff of "Discotheque" or the slinky one in "Mysterious Ways."

The band did just as well with a pop ditty like "Sweetest Thing" (which Bono dedicated to his wife) or an acoustic "The Ground Beneath Her Feet." It's not the stuff of the band's myth, when they defined the cutting edge in guitar sound and dared to pen generational anthems. But if nothing else, the

"Elevation" show proved there are a lot worse things than becoming song-and-dance men. Especially with songs this strong.

© NY Daily News, 2001.

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