U2's March of the Tired Warhorses Hamstrings Fine Ensemble Effort

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By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune

The corporate juggernaut that is U2 takes over Chicago this week with four sold-out shows at the United Center in-between singer Bono's latest efforts to save the world. These efforts would have been enhanced Saturday by a concert that relied less on U2's past and more on songs that haven't overstayed their welcome.

On opening night, Bono lamented that a decade ago he would place calls to the White House in the midst of the band's Zoo TV tour, but they went unanswered. "They take my call now," he said, and the audience cheered. He went on to urge the audience to text-message his Unite Against Poverty organization which is designed to pressure politicians to follow through on the United Nations' goal of cutting world poverty in half by 2015. It was yet another example of the rock concert as political advertisement, following closely on the heels of last year's Bruce Springsteen-led Vote for Change tour that aimed to oust George Bush from the White House.

U2's gambit will no doubt engender a lot of eye-rolling from those who have grown tired of Bono's increasingly high celebrity-activist profile. But the singer's social activism also had musical relevance, as it provided the thematic backbone to U2's current tour. During a sequence of songs including "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" that addressed how religion continues to become an excuse for violence, he donned a scarf adorned with religious symbols and declared, "Jesus, Jew, Mohammed is true."

The scarf became a blindfold on "Bullet the Blue Sky," which segued into the Civil War anthem "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." It was a bit of Bono-esque theater, part hokum but all heart.

For anyone who has felt anything for the band since it made its Chicago debut more than two decades ago at the Park West, the do-gooder self-righteousness is part of the package. It's driven as much by ambition and ego as it is social and artistic reasons, and sometimes it works spectacularly: Zoo TV, unanswered White House phone calls and all, remains a landmark of multimedia arena rock.

My quibble is not with the motive so much as with the execution. Things got off to a rocky start a few months ago, with a bungled ticket sale that brought a public apology from drummer Larry Mullen Jr. at the Grammy Awards, and again from Bono during Saturday's encore.

The tour follows the release of the band's latest studio album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, but doesn't really make a case for it. Though the album is strictly U2-by-the-numbers, a retreat back to its early '80s sound, the stage is the true measure of the quartet's songs.

The band was in fine form: Bono brought a new sense of nuance and phrasing to his singing, the Edge delved into blues by way of Jimi Hendrix during his guitar solo on "Bullet," and Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton remained implacable guardians of the Big Beat. Little wonder the Atomic Bomb tracks came on strong at the United Center, with a tambourine-inflected "All Because of You," a luminous "City of Blinding Lights" bathed in confetti, and especially a hymnlike "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own," with Bono paying tribute to his late father while pacing the walkway that ringed the elliptical stage. Here was U2 at its best, shrinking a stadium to a living-roomlike level of intimacy.

But at least half the show was consumed with a run through U2 warhorses that were already starting to sound exhausted on previous tours: "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "One." Save for the belly dancer missing in action from "Mysterious Ways," this was tired nostalgia, apparently to sate customers who shelled out hundreds of dollars for tickets.

It appears U2 is falling into the same trap as the Rolling Stones: Charging big money for a stadium show obligates the band to turn into a hits jukebox. But especially in a city such as Chicago, where U2 has been embraced like few other bands, the quartet can afford to take more chances. The promise of U2 has always been big music tied in with conviction, imagination and innovation. Now the band sounds like it believes less in its ability to surprise and dazzle with its new music, and more in the necessity to recycle its past. If that trend continues, U2's avid concern for social justice won't be enough to keep it relevant.

Copyright © 2005 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

6 Comments

Get real !! They played for over 2 hours, and they played 7 (out of 23 total) songs from their new album! That doesn't seem like playing 'all oldies' to me. Bono's 'speeches' were fine; we adults can make up our own minds. Remember, never let the facts get in the way of a slanted review.

Hi everyone... my name is elizabeth and i work for good mornign america. i was at the may 10th concert in chicago and was wondering if anyone out there was too!! im looking to find out if anyone remembers the girl who makes beer. she was really outgoing and made it a point to bring some beer that she had made for bono. if anyone knows EXACTLY who i'm talking about, please email me ASAP... [email protected]

This review is completely nit-picky. Seven new songs were played, and many of the older ones were never "hits" from a jukebox. Give me a break! I don't recall hearing 40, Bullet, Bad, The Ocean etc. on too many stations on the FM dial, or even on their own Greatest Hits CDs. Great old songs for fans who are deeply aware of the catalog are the types of songs that I was thrilled to hear live.

Lighten up, Greggy, this wasn't a Morrissey show.

What an arse! It is disappointing for this media type who likely had his ticket paid 'press free' to create such a weak review. Somehow I doubt he has been able to establish a career of 25 years as U2 has done. And what social activism has he ever done, oh, that's right...he only REPORTS the news instead of making it.

U2 - keep on rockin' in the free world!

I disagree with Greg Kot's last statement. This was my 10 year old son's first concert. He thought it was brilliant (even his classmates love U2) - though not familiar with some of the older songs he loved it. It is amazing that U2 can bridge the generations and still stay very creative, unique and very, very relevant with a positive message. This is rare in today's self absorbed and often rude society. One word sums it up for my son and I - Inspiring. This was a bonding experience for the both of us.

Doesn't anyone think there is any grain of truth in this? How do bands like the Rolling Stones become how they are? They explain it away, as Bono does when he claims they are not really pushing product because the ipod is the 'greatest invention' to touch rock music since the electric guitar. Or he claims that 'prog rock' is the enemy to justify recording 2 horribly unchallenging albums in a row. If anyone is being nitpicky it is Bono, as he does damage control for his and U2's own egos.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on May 10, 2005 4:37 AM.

Jim DeRogatis talks with U2's Larry Mullen Jr. was the previous entry in this blog.

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