Concert review: U2 at Soldier Field

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By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune

Bono was reminiscing about the good old days of U2, circa 1997, with 63,000-plus co-celebrants Tuesday at sold-out Soldier Field.

On the '97 stadium tour, Bono suggested, U2 was "experimenting and taking risks," which is a pretty accurate summation of a big show that strived for intimacy and surprise, sometimes to its own detriment. Lukewarm reviews and a mixed response from its fan base prompted the Irish quartet to adopt a more cautious approach on subsequent tours and albums, a pattern that held true Tuesday.

Usually on the second jaunt through town on a big tour - U2 opened its current 360 tour in North America at Soldier Field in 2009 - the band opens up a bit and lets spontaneity jostle against all the gadgets and technology. But this year's model isn't just any old U2 tour - it is gigantic by design, from its four-pronged, 167-foot-tall stage-cum-"space station" to its projected record-setting revenue of about $700 million.

The previous tour-revenue record-holders, the Rolling Stones, would surely recognize a band in its own image: cranking out mostly decades-old hits for tickets as high as $250 plus service fees. Before the big money took over, such nostalgia-mongering flog-the-oldies bands - whether Gary Puckett and the Union Gap or Gary Lewis and the Playboys - would play the state-fair circuit. Now they're what passes for rock royalty and they play football stadiums.

The U2 that hit Chicago this week is a band that seemed distracted, pulled in myriad directions. Besides Bono's ongoing duties as an international ambassador, there is the incredible faltering Broadway musical, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," that Bono and the Edge have been trying to salvage. Meanwhile, the band is said to be working on four albums with more than 50 songs in play.

But none of those songs showed up on Tuesday's set list. In contrast to Neil Young, who is constantly previewing new material in concert, U2 once again relied on songs from its first era, complete with vintage video clips of the Irish heroes when mullets were still in vogue.

There was no denying the sheer muscle of the band's core instrumental trio: the cascading volleys of sound conjured by Edge's guitar, the elastic bass lines of Adam Clayton, the huge drum volleys of Larry Mullen Jr. Out front, Bono was in great voice, a rock star in leather and shades despite the night's heat, a blustery Irish poet who would be a soul singer.

Yet the concert never really pushed beyond where it started in Chicago nearly two years ago, with its gaudy space ship occasionally creating some high-tech dazzle: a song introduction from an astronaut aboard a real space ship, the International Space station; another intro from former Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi; a cylindrical bee-hive of neon that enclosed the band during "Zooropa"; a slow, elegant swirl of light during "With or Without You."

The band all but ignored its latest studio album, "No Line on the Horizon," a hit-and-miss affair, to be sure, but the U2 that played Soldier Field in 1997 was not nearly so dismissive of the much-maligned (and highly underrated) studio album of the moment, "Pop." In the same way, "No Line" is the band's best work since that album, and yet its lack of commercial hits has made U2 gun-shy. A couple of tracks from that album were among the concert's finest moments: a retooled "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Crazy Tonight," with its driving disco beat paying homage to Chicago house music, its epicenter only a few blocks away at the site of the old Warehouse club. And the penultimate "Moment of Surrender" was a slow-burn hymn that ranks with the band's most gripping ballads.

U2 also resurrected a fairly obscure song from its mid-'90s "Passengers" side project, "Miss Saravejo." It's a dreamy reverie about a strange and strangely beautiful gesture: a beauty contest staged in the middle of a bloody, four-year siege of Bosnia and Herzegovina's capital during the '90s. The song was a centerpiece of U2's 1993 Zooropa tour, and its return to the set list was a reminder of how the quartet at its best melds the political, personal and the surreal, finding slivers of humanity in dehumanizing moments.

Before exiting, the band pulled out an impromptu "One Tree Hill," another oldie, but a rarely performed one. The elegy came together piece by piece, like an old automobile being rebuilt from scratch - first the Edge tinkering with the chords next to Bono, then Clayton and Mullen joining in until the rickety rig was up and running, its very tentativeness making it somehow all the more moving and powerful. It was a reminder of the U2 that Bono referenced earlier in the show, the one that took risks and turned them into lasting moments.

Copyright © 2011 Chicago Tribune

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on July 6, 2011 9:14 AM.

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