U2 at the United Center, May 2001

Daily Herald Music Critic

Traditionally, politicians and rock stars are like oil and water. But there was Bono — lead singer of the Irish rock band U2 — pressing the flesh and posing for photos at the United Center Saturday like a candidate motivated by fear of hanging chads.

A band strident about politics in the past, the major issue on this current “Elevation” tour— including three more nights in Chicago — is just the music. Strange that should be big news for a group of musicians, but what happened when a band makes its best albums and becomes the biggest band in the world, and its members are only in their early thirties?

If that band is U2 over 10 years ago, it plows on, attempts to reinvent itself numerous times and embarks on high-concept stadium tours that grow more and more elaborate until irony-inducing stage props like giant mirrorball lemons and hanging Volkswagens take over — literally and figuratively— the music.

With U2 entering its third decade, it became time to reassess, which is what this current tour, and its accompanying album, is all about.

Like Bruce Springsteen, who last hit the road touting just his glory days without draped flags and fist-pumping patriotism, U2 stuck to the basics. The only stage novelties were two ramps that curved into the floor, creating a heart-shaped pit for about 350 fans to ram into and for Bono and band to walk out on top of.

That simple device became an essential part of the show. A larger-than-life stage prop himself, Bono strode through the crowd striking poses, stepping out onto security barricades and playing the raging bull to guitarist The Edge’s bullfighter. The entire floor was general admission, which, while making security watchdogs antsy, provided handy visuals – like the sea of hands clapping out the Bo Diddley beat on “Desire.”

Crafty manipulation like that was not necessary when the band performed classic anthems early in the set including “New Year’s Day” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” often with the house lights thrown up. “I Will Follow,” recorded when they were still teens, sounded cranked out of a garage as each of the foursome, including bassist Adam Clayton, huddled around drummer Larry Mullen Jr.

But even as those early songs shaped U2’s political thought, political statements were tossed aside, kind of like those Irish flags that kept landing at Bono’s feet from the crowd. Tasteful theatrical touches – a thin bank of lights behind the band, draped scrims, a smattering of strobe lights – gave an artful effect that never became overbearing.

The often powerful show was stunted somewhat when Bono played both runway model and Frankenstein’s monster for the new song “New York.” He woefully tired getting the Second City crowd to wax romantic about the Big Apple.

Then there was that backhanded tribute to Joey Ramone, who died just weeks ago. Instead of launching into a Ramones song, the band played the U2 song he heard just as he passed away.

In the night’s most impromptu moment, a fan touting his piano skills was invited up to play keyboards for “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” which he did with skill.

Bono told the crowd it was 20 years ago this week when U2 played the Park West at $1 a ticket. “Some things have changed,” he said. But as one banner in the crowed declared “U2 remembers,” it was a show tough to forget.

As U2 downscaled its stadium appeal, opener P.J. Harvey was just trying hers out.

With her banshee octave wailing filling the arena, the songs from her new album were sexy, rugged and dangerous.

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