Live: U2 Keep On Keepin' On At The Meadowlands

U2 w/ Interpol New Meadowlands Stadium Wednesday, July 20

Better than: ...the real thing?

Every day, you presumably go to work, and sit in a cubicle or in an office. You work on a desktop, check some blogs, IM with your friends, and small talk with co-workers. You do this competently and consistently but surely you'd rather be elsewhere.

This must be what playing before a crowd of 90,000 people feels like for Bono. The 50-year-old frontman of the biggest band in the world commands the stage with such practiced professionalism, one can't help but wonder if he's still having fun.

First, a little background information: I am a former U2 obsessive. Up until the release of 2009's No Line On the Horizon, I had consistently attended midnight record release events. I collected B-sides, imports, rarities and fan club releases, and at one point, I even owned every U2 release on vinyl, CD, and cassette. Yes, this is weird.

But U2—specifically. Achtung Baby-era U2—resonated with me in a way no other band had; it had a seemingly perfect amalgamation of heroism and sincerity, epic ambition and down-to-earthiness. Bono came off as the kind of guy who could meet you for drinks at a local pub, and then go home and cure AIDS. But this adoration kept strong up until a few years back, when I found myself less enthused by the band's output. U2's singles started sounding desperate and awkward ("Vertigo," "Get On Your Boots"), and Bono's lyrics came across like high-school poetry (Remember "Freedom has a scent/ Like the top of a new born baby's head"... ?) For the last decade, the band's releases had been half-great and the other half, not-so-great. Four Irishmen who once could unite the world in the collective listening of the same song could barely inspire familiarity last night with material from their latest album.

This is not to say the show didn't inspire venue-wide goosebumps. "With Or Without You," "Where The Streets Have No Name," and "One" have a potency that will never subside no matter how many years have passed. And in recognition of Achtung Baby's twenty-year anniversary, the band opened with four tracks from the undisputed creative peak of their catalog—"Even Better Than the Real Thing," "The Fly," "Mysterious Ways," and "Until the End of the World." It reminded me of U2's long-gone propensity to experiment, challenge listeners, and to bring the mainstream to an elevated cultural plane. For many, Achtung opened the door to other musics#0151;I know that it chaperoned my ears to weirder sounds, from Lou Reed to David Bowie to the whole genre once referred to as "college rock." Frankly, last night, I could have listened to them play the whole album from beginning to end instead of the inexplicably stubborn inclusion of "Miss Sarajevo" into the setlist. Ultimately, when Bono apes Luciano Pavarotti operatic cameo mid-way through the 1995 single, he may as well be singing, "it's time to use the bathroom and buy beers" in Italian. It was, however, a joy to hear "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," the only good thing to come from Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever, and "City of Blinding Lights," the closest the band has come to recently in recapturing its soaring glory.


Creative inconsistencies aside, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., and bassist Adam Clayton never change; both consummate into a true rhythmic solidarity while simultaneously shunning the heroism that is arena rock and roll. (At one point, Bono even chided Clayton for only being in the band to meet girls. This is entirely plausible.) Their presence is maximum in sound, but minimal in crowd interaction. The latter, of course, is the job of Bono and the Edge, and Bono does this with such concentrated directness, you could smear his schtick on a piece of bread. Let's go down the checklist, shall we? Bono told us he loved us; he thanked us; he encouraged us to support peace; he recognized Amnesty International; he spoke about a once-imprisoned artist. (He did leave out an Obama reference.)

The Edge, however, is a truly inspiring presence and created vibrant flourishes so enormous that the confines of the Meadowlands forced his sound to the heavens. His shimmering reverb could literally wash any cynicism away—it's that palpable.

Ultimately, at the end of the night, I had a blast—my back and shoulders still ache from dancing—but it was a predictable blast. Before songs began, fans in general admission would guess what U2 would play next with eerie accuracy. Then again, given that the U2 set list on the 360 Tour has remained fairly consistent, maybe swapping two or three songs in and out on a rotational basis doesn't exactly make one Nostradamus. And according to the same fan sites that post those set lists on a nightly basis, Bono and Co. played twenty-six complete songs total, making it the longest U2 gig ever played. In history. Which is still pretty generous and impressive for four guys thirty years into doing a job.

Critical bias: See above.

Overheard: "Can I have whatever it is that you're on right now?"

Random notebook dump: U2's merch is surprisingly cheesy and poorly designed. But it's not exactly surprising, considering the band's wardrobe features a fair share of glitter and sequins.

Setlist: Even Better Than The Real Thing The Fly Mysterious Ways Until The End Of The World I Will Follow Get On Your Boots Magnificent I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (with Bruce Springsteen's "The Promised Land" snippet) Stay (Faraway, So Close!) Beautiful Day Elevation Pride (In The Name Of Love) Miss Sarajevo Zooropa City Of Blinding Lights Vertigo I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight with "Discotheque" and Talking Heads snippet Sunday Bloody Sunday Scarlet Walk On -- One Play Video Where The Streets Have No Name (with "Hallejulah" snippet) -- Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me With Or Without You Moment of Surrender Out Of Control

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