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"I like boring things like loyalty, and I like to have a good time too." — Bono

U2 mixes theatrics, politics and songs it wants heard

- October 26, 2009

by Michael Mishak

When U2's 360 Tour touched down in Las Vegas last week, the biggest band in the world tried some sleight of hand, using the largest stage in rock history, a four-pronged claw with moving ramps, smoke, lights and swirling video screens, to achieve what frontman Bono has described as "intimacy on a grand scale."

In other words: We're just four guys playing rock 'n' roll — in a crazy spaceship, which happens to be parked in Sam Boyd Stadium.

For the most part, the Irish rockers pulled it off. For more than two hours, U2 rolled through three decades of hits, performing in the round to about 40,000 people. And, in an effort to prove its own relevance, the band drew the bulk of its 23-song set from its last three albums, starting with 2000's "All That You Can't Leave Behind." What's more, U2 started the night with three songs from its latest record, the artists' equivalent of shoveling cough medicine down a screaming child's throat.

We know what's good for you, and you're going to like it.

Strange thing is, I did. When I first heard "No Line on the Horizon" I thought it had some real gems (see title track and "Breathe") that got lost in an uneven album. Apparently I wasn't alone. The record barely charted platinum, a disappointment by U2's mega-selling standards.

But the one-two-three punch at the opening of Friday night's show made me reconsider.

U2 wants its newer work to fit snugly in a catalog of classics. They weren't always successful (An acoustic treatment of "Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" fell flat, especially coming after the "Joshua Tree" hit "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For") but the stadium's starship treatment gave this decade's songs newfound life.

I will dare to say that "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," which frankly sucks on the new album, was one of the highlights of the night. U2 essentially remixed a slow-and-dull sleeper into a frenzied, electronic anthem. Images of the band's heads bopped on the video screens as drummer Larry Mullen Jr. took a break from his drum kit and walked the circular stage beating a djembe. Bono led the crowd in a dancehall rave courtesy of guitarist The Edge and bassist Adam Clayton.

One song, however, that can't be saved is "Unknown Caller," also from "No Line." Its forced references to computer commands ("Force quit and move to trash ... Restart and reboot yourself") make it, well, embarrassing.

Bono condensed the vast space of Sam Boyd Stadium by relating directly to Las Vegas. After "Beautiful Day" he introduced the band, giving them each a Vegas lounge act's name. "I'm Wayne Newton," he said. Later, he said the band was proud to play in the hometown of the Killers. And Bono made some lucky kid's night when he helped him climb onto a roving ramp during "City of Blinding Lights." The two then ran around the stage, before Bono gave the kid his trademark sunglasses.

The $750,000 a day of overhead, 200 trucks, 400 employees and more than 250 speakers aren't for naught, but the spaceship didn't really come to life until three-quarters of the way through the set. During a riveting "Sunday Bloody Sunday," the screens went green, showing scenes of this year's Iranian elections, which gave new meaning to the line, "How long must we sing this song?" He dedicated the song to "the heroes in the streets of Tehran" before using "Walk On" to honor imprisoned Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi. People holding masks of the pro-democracy activist ringed the band.

This is the only band that can get a stadium full of fans to sit through a political speech by Desmond Tutu — shown on the screen as the intro to "One."

U2 doesn't need to collaborate with the Black Eyed Peas to be relevant. Time and human events are on its side.

The band mixed up the set with rarities such as "Unforgettable Fire" and non-single album favorites "Until the End of the World" and "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)," the latter of which featured Bono in a jacket glowing with red lights, dangling from a neon-lit microphone that descended from the sky.

In the encore, "Where the Streets Have No Name" brought the band into tight formation around Mullen's drum kit, moving the crowd to sing along. It was the best moment of the night. And U2 was clearly gratified by the response.

Stadium shows clearly have their limitations. For most of the crowd, the band looks like a bunch of ants crawling around on stage. But U2 did its best to shrink the distance with video, spectacle and sheer engagement. The whole spaceship set came together when Bono asked the crowd to hold up their cell phones during closer "Moment of Surrender," giving the stadium the feel of outer space.

Earlier in the night, Bono riffed off of Vegas. "All performers, sometimes we end up on our knees, but we all come to Las Vegas."

If Friday's performance is any indication, U2 has many years to go before it's ready for the showroom at the Flamingo.

It was, as Bono put it, "a special night in the desert."

(c) Las Vegas Sun, 2009.

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