By Mark Guarino
“It’s okay to try stuff isn’t it?” Bono asked Tuesday, the opening night of the second leg of U2’s current tour at the United Center.
Yes, please. The two-hour, 20-minute show sparkled in a fresh new way that the band’s first jaunt through town last May did not. U2 has had several career-shifting transformations since its early days when it came on the scene as a teenage punk band wrestling with Christian themes and evangelical energy. In each new phase, the band grew larger than life. In the process, U2 has gone where no band has before, taking its social conscience so seriously that not only does it motivate the majority of their songs, their lead singer is now considered a global statesman who can whisper into the ears of the nation’s highest leaders and they will listen.
With that sort of lofty stature, U2 is band burdened with enormous weight in that every gesture, every lyric, every note from a guitar might carry some kind of special meaning for debate. And lately its biggest challenge is one faced by the Rolling Stones and other heavily vaulted rock bands: how to exceed the expectations of their fans, not just meet them.
Tuesday’s show, the first of two nights, followed a juggled setlist compared to the spring, leaving out signature classics like “New Year’s Day” to make room for early songs like “The Electric Co.” and “The Ocean” from their 1980 debut album, and “The First Time,” a rarity from their little-regarded 1993 album “Zooropa.” Early into the night the band played with the setlist further, using songs to improvise, merging in snippets from the Doors, the Beatles, Elton John. The loose atmosphere led them at times to abandon the setlist entirely. At one moment Bono told guitarist The Edge to join him for “Walk On.” Performing it as an acoustic duo, they jumped right in brazenly until Bono paused to ask a roadie for a lyric sheet to get him to the end. So much for veering from the script.
Bono and The Edge also performed “Yahweh” as a pair. Stripped down, the song’s plea for spiritual renewal proved worthy for Sunday morning services.
The band addressed the devastation caused by the Katrina hurricane, but through symbolic gestures. After performing “One,” Bono sang a snipped of “Old Man River.” In his introduction of “Miss Sarajevo,” he linked the current war against terrorism to a fight for ideals, especially on the domestic front. “We put people before ideas,” he said. “Equality is something we have to fight for whether it’s in Chicago or Ireland or Louisiana or Mozambique.”
But even if he rattled off the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights (actually, they scrolled on a video screen), it wouldn’t have had the same effect as many moments during the show that gave the feeling of true unity. U2 is a rare band that can make an arena crowd immediately become one. The house lights were often half up or fully lit the entire show, showcasing a sea of faces all focused on a single idea. The marriage of words and music might articulate the need for a united front, but, under the right kind of lighting, it proved something more tangible: how good it can feel.