U2 think big at Gillette Stadium

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By Rick Massimo, Providence Journal Pop Music Writer

FOXBORO, Mass. -- U2 doesn't work small.

The Irish rock legends brought their U2 360 Tour to Gillette Stadium for the first of two shows Sunday night, and it's tempting to simply review the stage.

Since it was impossible to ignore, it's as good a place as any to start.

The gargantuan structure, which took four days to build, resembled nothing so much as a four-legged spider with light-green skin and orange polka dots. Its legs contained dozens of speakers; smoke billowed from various portals. Above the band was a huge cylindrical screen that could project or be projected upon, and which expanded to nearly reach the stage later in the show.

A 360-degree catwalk surrounded the round stage, with movable ramps connecting the two, allowing band members to stroll pretty much wherever they wanted (guitarist The Edge was further freed up by a headset microphone and a technician adjusting his guitar sounds, rather than using footpedals). Larry Mullen's drum riser also revolved.

They displayed ambition in their set list as well, starting off with four songs from this year's No Line On The Horizon disc and returning to it several more times in the two-hour show.

Mullen came out first to kick off the rolling, tumbling "Breathe," a triplet rhythm with vocalist Bono spitting out rapid-fire verses alternating with slow, lazy choruses. After the midtempo title track, they finally charged out of the gate with "Get On Your Boots" and moved on to the stately "Magnificent," with its slide-guitar solo from The Edge.

They finally dipped into the back catalog with "Mysterious Ways" (showcasing bassist Adam Clayton's Memphis-soul chops) and the straight-up shout of "Beautiful Day" (with a quote from "Blackbird" by Bono over the coda, one of several of his trademark nods to other songs during the night).

The set mellowed out about midway through, with an affecting, acoustic, Bono-and-Edge-only "Stuck In a Moment (You Can't Get Out Of)," with sweet falsetto vocal in the coda from The Edge; the keyboard-driven "The Unforgettable Fire" and the uplifting "City of Blinding Lights."

Even with all the technical whiz-bangery, several moments, such as the full-on rock of "Vertigo" and the gorgeous ballad "One," as well as the encores, saw virtually no visual trickery.

New or old material, high-tech production or no, the template has remained the same over the decades -- slow-moving chord changes with a rock-solid beat from Mullen, fast-strumming guitar from The Edge that alternates between chiming and jagged, and of course to-the-back-row vocal dramatics from the leather-lunged Bono.

They also don't think small when it comes to statements, and there was no shortage of those, mostly from Bono, whether shouting out to Marvin Minsky, author of the artificial-intelligence book Conscious Machines, or encouraging "freedom in the streets of Iran" before "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (with visual backdrops recalling that conflict, including a wash of green light) and freedom for Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi before "Walk On," complete with fans marching onto the catwalk while holding masks of her face.

They even threw in an inspirational video from Archbishop Desmond Tutu before "One" and a snippet of Maya Angelou's "A Brave and Startling Truth" before the encores, which started with "Ultraviolet," going back to the Achtung Baby album, and "With Or Without You," both performed with Bono swinging from a hanging mike wearing a suit festooned with tiny red lights and with a lit-up disco ball luminescing from the top of the 150-foot stage during the latter.

The mournful, organ-led "Moment of Surrender," again from No Line, closed it out - seemingly incongruous for a stadium rock concert, but in keeping with the big-hearted humanitarian theme of the show.

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"You're gonna have fun tonight -- but first, us," Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody said early in their set. He was being a little too self-denigrating. Opening acts are opening acts. But while U2's fellow Irishmen's stadium-rock anthemry can wear thin on record, in an actual stadium they filled the space well, particularly Lightbody's powerful voice.

They were allowed to use a lot of the space on the stage, and a fair amount of the technology, and they took it up, such as when Lightbody prowled the stage, guitarless, during "Hands Open." They opened with "If There's a Rocket Tie Me To It," with space-age keyboard squiggles opening up to an anthemic chorus, and went into "Chocolate," with its heroic-sounding guitar.

The lean syncopation of "Shut Your Eyes" grooved as well, and Lightbody so inspired the crowd to sing along that they took the chorus up again after the song was over, prompting a salaam from the singer.

The hit single "Chasing Cars" showed the band's debt to the chiming guitars of The Edge and the hesitant romanticism of Coldplay, and by the time of "Open Your Eyes" it was again beginning to wear thin -- virtually any of these songs could have been the opener or closer. But then there was "You're All That I Have" and that was it -- another virtue of opening acts.

Both bands play again Monday night.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on September 21, 2009 6:02 AM.

U2's massive intimacy was the previous entry in this blog.

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