By Mark Guarino
Woe to be U2 in 2005. The complex intersecting of pre-emptive war, human rights violations and terrorism makes it difficult for a band to cheer “Love and Peace Or Else” (as a recent song title suggests) and really mean it. Instead, they’ve adopted the guise of the quintessential American presidential candidate: trying to please all their constituents, from fans on up to world leaders, their message they offer is sincere, sleekly executed and completely hollow.
At the United Center Saturday, the first of four nights that culminate Thursday, Bono explained the difference between being in U2 in the early ‘90s, when he used to crank call the White House from the concert stage, to today when he is the celebrity pet of the Bush administration, is simple: “They used to never take my call,” he said. “But they take my call now.”
Bono’s tireless campaigning for African debt relief among a dozen other social justice issues has inadvertently blunted the edge of what was once a band that poised uncomfortable questions from the sidelines. The band always fared better in reaction against world events, whether the violence of 1970s Northern Ireland to the terrorism of Sept. 11.
But the current return of U2 is soft, the gestures from the stage made wearing kid gloves. That manifested itself in many ways, from the buzzkill of their mediocre new songs to theatrics by Bono that didn’t seem to say much, to the heart-shaped ramp that allowed bandmembers to position themselves deep within the crowd. During U2’s triumphant 2001 tour, Bono would regularly charge down it like a bull, sometimes with two fingers on his head representing horns. On Saturday, the bullish charge became the occasional leisurely stroll.
The two-hour, 21-song set was heavy with songs from their latest album, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” (Interscope). Entering on the tribal pounding “Love and Peace Or Else,” the band launched into “Vertigo” and later, showered with glitter falling from the ceiling, “City of Blinding Lights.” The songs had the familiar feel of vintage U2 songs but they were lightweight exercises. The single most stunner moment of the night was Adam Clayton’s rumbling bassline, opening “New Year’s Day,” the 1983 song that sounded as urgent as the day it was written.
During “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky,” Bono tied to his head a white scarf scrawled with symbols for Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He then dropped to his knees, pulled it over his eyes as a blindfold, and held his hands in the air as if handcuffed, singing “these are the hands that built America.” The gesture, an obvious criticism of the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal, was effective until the next song, “Running to Stand Still.” Dedicated to the American military, it of course drew cheers. Wanting to placate and provoke at the same time proved farcical. Even while the UN Declaration of Human Rights scrolled on a screen overhead, this was simple voyeurism disguised as activism.
The band’s encore was dedicated to their electro-trash period (“Zoo Station, “The Fly,” “Mysterious Ways”). Compared to the glam assault of tours past, they were performed with fatigue. U2 is far removed from that period as they are from many incarnations in their past. They remain a global band shouldering great weight in every move. But nesting on the inside track, they feel compromised, tired and confused.
The one band member seeming to enjoy every chance of spontaneity he could get was Clayton. Without a cue, he ran down the ramp and performed separately to pockets of fans. It produced shock and awe from Bono who finally asked, “Adam Clayton, what has gotten into you?” Whatever it is, pray it’s contagious.