By Jon Pareles, New York Times
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Pointing a finger toward the audience surrounding U2 on Wednesday night at Giants Stadium, Bono sang, "Oh, you look so beautiful!" -- with the crowd itself shouting along. It was just one moment of mutual affirmation in a concert with an ever-expanding mission.
U2 kept raising the metaphysical ante. At first the show was about the band itself and its joy in the music it has been making for more than 30 years together. The set began with "Breathe," a song from U2's current album, "No Line on the Horizon" (Interscope) that declares, "I've found grace inside a sound."
Soon it turned from musical ambition to rock community-building, bonding the band and the 60,000 fans who had sold out the stadium. Being in New Jersey on Bruce Springsteen's 60th birthday, U2 segued Mr. Springsteen's "She's the One' (with Bono changing the chorus to "He's the one") into its own "Desire."
Then that local gathering was placed in the wider world and urged toward activism. "Walk On" was dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has long been under house arrest in Myanmar, and dozens of her supporters paraded onstage with her photograph.
Finally, this world became part of the universe and a spiritual realm with songs, as Bono used "Amazing Grace" to lead into U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." The concert was high-minded and earthy, exalted and playful, sometimes even goofy, wielding rock-star prerogatives while undercutting them with disarming informality. "We're very humbled," Bono said to one wave of applause, and smiled. "Well, maybe not."
It was the first local stop of U2's 360 Degree tour, which is played in the round under a claw-like, spired structure that's part insect, part spacecraft, part cathedral. It's less imposing than it appears in photographs; the scalloped exostructure is stretchy plastic, not metal. But it serves its purpose: keeping the band visible and staying out of its way better than some of U2's past stadium contraptions.
Although Bono struck some rock-star poses, and there was plenty of flashy video, U2 reaches stadium crowds less with spectacle than with its sound, which swells to fill the largest spaces. The Edge's guitar parts ripple outward, often running through echo, reverb and distortion effects to spill across and around the beat; lately, in songs like "Get On Your Boots," he has rediscovered the simple, centered impact of a riff. Regardless, Adam Clayton's bass lines and Larry Mullen Jr.'s parade-ground drumming keep the songs firmly grounded.
Onstage, the band doesn't try to replicate the layers of its studio productions. The Edge latches on to the most important guitar part (and its specific tone and effects) and lets fly, whether it's the chomping wah-wah funk of "Mysterious Ways" or the wide-open picking of "Sunday Bloody Sunday." (As "Elevation" worked up to frantic, punky strumming, the Edge started hopping up and down, pogo-ing.) Bono finds grace in the sound as an Irish tenor who holds his lungpower in reserve. Where his lofty thoughts on love and faith could turn into bombast, he backed off. He often sang less forcefully than he does on the albums, as if he were serenading a confidant rather than a stadium.
Yet there was a program, and Bono the statesman called in some chips. U2 performed "Your Blue Room" -- a spooky, Velvet Underground-tinged ballad that U2 recorded with Brian Eno as Passengers, on a 1995 album -- with voiceovers by astronauts about the blueness of the earth, a forced connection; one verse was recited on video by Frank De Winne, an astronaut, aboard the International Space Station. Later, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu appeared on the video screen, praising resistance movements and aid to Africa before introducing "One."
If that sounds far too earnest, it wasn't; even Mr. Tutu was beaming. And music, not messages, came first. U2 kept slipping bits of oldies -- "All You Need Is Love," "Rock 'n' Roll High School," "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" -- alongside its own songs, and Bono was game enough to appear for encores in a jacket that lit up along its seams -- singing "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)," a love song that can double as devotional. Under U2's outlandish claw, guitar noise and celebrity were, improbably, in tune with virtue -- and fun, too.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company