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"There is, though, a huge difference in the end between pop and rock. It's something to do with pop telling you that everything is OK, and rock telling you it isn't." — Bono

U2 rocks United Center

- May 14, 2001


After spending the last few years attempting to subvert the conventions of the form--with considerable success on the Zoo TV tour, but much less interestingly on the PopMart jaunt--U2 has learned to stop worrying and embrace arena-rock.

Taking the stage at the United Center on Saturday for the first of four sold-out shows, the long-running Irish quartet proved once more that it is masterful at making a giant and impersonal stadium feel like an intimate rock club. That's the "up" side of the band's current Elevation tour. The flip side is that the group has returned to wallowing in many of the cliches that it deftly sidestepped or directly parodied with the archly ironic and technically innovative Zoo TV outing.

Oh, well. No one has ever said that Bono and his mates don't try to have their cake and eat it, too.

The contradictions were apparent from the moment the band walked onto the relatively Spartan stage. The house lights were still on, and the musicians appeared sans fanfare, just feet away from the celebrated "mosh pit" of lucky general-admission fans.

This no-fuss entrance and the four black-and-white screens that focused one on each musician seemed designed to demystify the platinum superstars. But soon enough, Bono was posing and dancing behind a giant opaque screen during "New York" and hamming it up "Rattle and Hum"-style on the bombastic anthems, "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "Bullet the Blue Sky." And so it went through the 90-minute, 22-song set, with the group vacillating between being the most human of megastars and the most messianic.

Among the more touching, least pretentious moments were a stripped-down rendition of "Stay (Faraway, So Close)" during which Bono and the Edge pulled a Chicago fan named Jonathan onstage and allowed him to play piano. I'd love to see another arena act attempt something similar.

The group also delivered a gorgeous version of "One" in the final encore and a rollicking "New Year's Day" early in the set that found each member playing as good or better than he ever has. Bono moved from hushed intimacy to maximum bravado, the Edge sounded like a one-man, six-string orchestra, Adam Clayton unfurled his ultra-melodic bass lines, and Larry Mullen Jr. propelled things in his musical, rolling fashion.

It was hard not to cringe, however, when Bono dedicated "Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of" to Michael Hutchence and offered the gospel-flavored "In A Little While" in homage to Joey Ramone, just as he has every night on the tour.

The singer started to wave an Irish flag thrown from the crowd during "Sunday Bloody Sunday," then thought better of it. But he couldn't help himself from telling Chicago it's one of his favorite cities because it loved the PopMart shows while much of the rest of America did not.

Bono also reminded the crowd that U2 first played here almost 20 years ago to the day, and that time, the cover charge was $1. "Some things do change," he said, unapologetically. The base price for many of the best seats on Saturday was $130.

"The last of the rock stars/When hip-hop drove the big cars," Bono sang in "Kite." U2 is certainly pulling in the big bucks, but it's open to debate whether or not this arena cash-in is a positive thing in an otherwise moribund time for rock.

Opening act P.J. Harvey has been expressing second thoughts about her decision to tour with U2, and on Saturday, it was easy to see why. Much of the crowd was indifferent to her bluesy art-rock, and an awful mix in the cavernous venue worked against her. (I will never understand why headliners ask artists they respect to open in such places, then deny them the use of the full-power sound system.)

Harvey gamely persevered and tore through a sampling of her best tunes, eventually hitting her stride in the last third of her 11-song set. But while she can be one of the most powerful performers you'll ever see at a venue like the Vic Theatre, she is no arena-rocker--and that is definitely to her credit.

© Sun-Times, 2001.

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