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Bruce Springsteen. . . . with those brooding brown eyes, eyes that could see through America. -- Bono, induction speech for Springsteen at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

U2 lights up New Meadowlands Stadium

- July 22, 2011

by Tris McCall

They took the stage to David Bowies "Space Oddity." U2 was promising something interstellar, something of cosmic significance; a trip through the stars powered by the force of rock music. And theyd brought along their own craft for the journey a stage set bigger, taller and brighter than anybody elses. It resembled the hand of an alien, reaching down from the stars to anchor the band in the present moment: a hot July evening at New Meadowlands Stadium. They were ready to blast off. And close to 90,000 were going along for the ride.

Grandiose? Sure. But nobody would have expected anything less from rocks great maximalists. Bono and his bandmates have always been men searching for solutions to gigantic problems. Thats what "I Still Havent Found What Im Looking For" is about. Bono is not coping with garden-variety discomfort: Hes carrying the cross and holding the hand of the devil, and hoping to beat temptation and make it to kingdom come. Hes playing out his visions on the grandest scale imaginable. Bono and U2 have always made their political commitments explicit, too theyre looking to upend oppressive regimes and free Burma and feed the African horn while theyre at it. You dont think a rock band can accomplish those goals? Well, U2 doesnt have time for your negativity, pal. Get as many people connected as possible, and create a sound as huge as the sky, and maybe the world might begin to turn in the opposite direction.

Its hard to fault the band for its earnest faith in rock n roll, in spectacle, and in participatory democracy. The U2 ethos requires inclusiveness, and luckily for the group, it is as popular now as it has ever been. The world is invited to this traveling party, and the band is one of the few left with the means to send that invitation to everybody. But not even Bono and his three partners can squeeze the entire globe inside a stadium for a concert.

The 360 Tour is U2s current solution to that problem, and like most of U2s solutions, its both inspired and incomplete. (Give them a few years, and theyll return with another: This is not a band that ever runs short on ideas.) An explosion of light, color, smoke and electronics, U2 360 touched down in East Rutherford on Wednesday. The stage set-up which featured a moving cylindrical projection system, a thin, lofty spire that threw beams of light across the packed house, and a gigantic, glowing space claw suspended over a wide circular dais at one end of the stadium allowed the band to sell a ticket to every seat in the house, and open the floor to thousands more.

In September 2009, the Dublin quartet brought its apparatus to Giants Stadium and attracted a record 85,000 people to the old facility. The New Meadowlands Stadium show, which was a make-up date for a July 2010 concert that was scrapped when Bono hurt his back, beat that number: an astonishing 89,500 gathered to hear U2 rattle and hum. To put that in context, consider this: Thats more than the population of Trenton. (Bono suggested that there were 95,000 in the house, but thats exactly what youd expect him to say: He always wants everything to be bigger and better.)

He, guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. set up their gear on an inner circle beneath the giant claw. That platform was connected to an outer circle of catwalks by two moving bridges. Sometimes the rig helped broadcast Bonos message; sometimes the band felt like prisoners of their own contraption.

In theory, the musicians could play to any part of the crowd at any time. They did make clever use of all that running space Bono stalked the outer ring as he sang the martial "Sunday Bloody Sunday," and The Edge took a dramatic solo on the bridge during "Magnificent." But more often, they stood near their amplifiers in the middle of the inner circle facing the far end of the stadium, just like any other band. Those who sprung for a near-end ticket became quite familiar with the backs of the band members heads.

Despite the electronic frippery, flashing lights and transmissions from Gabrielle Giffords husband in orbit and recently freed Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, U2 360 is a straightforward rock show from one of the worlds most straightforward rock groups. Clayton, The Edge and especially Mullen are formidable musicians; theyve hung together for decades, and no matter how theyve redefined themselves, theyve always realized a ferocious, stadium-sized sound. And on Wednesday night, U2 made sure to pay tribute to the master of the Meadowlands: Bono is an enormous Springsteen fan, and he led the crowd in a "Bruce" chant, dropped a line from "Jungleland" into the encore, and appended a chorus from "The Promised Land" to the conclusion of "I Still Havent Found What Im Looking For." He dedicated "Moment of Surrender" to the late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Perhaps because of his love for The Boss, New Jersey is meaningful for the Irish rock star: He brought along a copy of a setlist from a concert U2 played at the Fastlane in Asbury Park in the 80s, and read it out, to the delight of the crowd.

That was as far down memory lane as U2 was willing to go. The band did not air much early material, instead drawing heavily from the "Achtung Baby" and "Zooropa" albums that redefined (and de-Americanized) the bands approach in the early-90s. Mullen hammered out funk beats; The Edge broke out the wah-wah for a scalding take on "Mysterious Ways," Bono purred his way through "The Fly."

These are, however, not the songs that established U2 in the United States. The three expansive, world-shaking singles from "The Joshua Tree" did not fit as well with the space claw and flashing screens as the sleek "Achtung"-era material did. On the earlier songs, The Edges delay-drenched guitar, Claytons Factory Records bass throb, and Mullens martial snare seemed to beg for a less digital setting. The encore performance of the heartbroken "With or Without You" was an odd one: Bono sang the song with his face partially occluded by a microphone in the shape of a neon frisbee.

Although he dearly loves to pontificate (he compared himself to a preacher twice), Bono is an endearing figure: Between songs, he kept up a friendly rapport with the audience and with his bandmates. Once those drumbeats began, he snapped back into missionary mode. U2 360 is less overtly political than prior tours, but he still threw plenty of red meat to believers in global unity. The main set concluded with members of Amnesty International walking the circumference of the outer ring as the band played. He led the crowd in a chorus of "Scarlet" ("rejoice!") on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyis release.

Bono didnt ask the audience to care about Burmese politics he expected it to. Theyd all come to a U2 concert, hadnt they?

Opening act Interpol shares many influences with U2: Joy Division, the Chameleons UK, Berlin-era Bowie, Television. But while Bono and his bandmates chose to fashion that gloomy material into something suitable for a mass audience, Interpol has always been more ambivalent about pop. While the band has shook off the loss of its most charismatic member bassist Carlos Dengler there was still something strange about hearing its stormy, occasionally difficult songs in the middle of a football field. It has been a decade since Interpol sent ripples through the pop underground with its landmark "Turn on the Bright Lights" album, but theyre still as crisp as theyve ever been particularly drummer Sam Fogarino, whose precision handling the bands demanding art-rock compositions was impressive.

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