A SUBDUED U2 REBOUNDS FOR THE ‘80S
After being dubbed “Band of the ‘80s,” “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world” and virtually every other superlative that the rock press can concoct, U2 finally received undeniable confirmation this past week that the masses agree, in the form of the group’s first No. 1 record in the U.S.
But while most groups would find that breakthrough cause for intense celebration in concert, it was noted only in passing Friday as the Irish quartet opened a sold-out, five-night stand at the Sports Arena. Not only was the first L.A. show not necessarily a party, but the mood of the evening was also rather subdued, compared with U2’s past visits.
“This week, when we have a No. 1 record on the Billboard charts, we feel we’ve accomplished something,” acknowledged lead singer Bono Hewson early in the concert. “But we haven’t achieved everything--and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
Bono and his three bandmates are gracious enough not to act out roles as ascetics who deny all signs of commercial success for their art. But what helps make U2 the band that so many fans have indeed been looking for, is its ability to focus, in the midst of all that acclaim, on values more spiritual and eternal--as in new songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
Those two anthems together provide a bittersweet introduction to the “Joshua Tree” album, or to a concert. They reflect a yearning for peace so desperate that seemingly nothing--not record sales, not religious ecstasy, not even true love--will satisfy the soul this side of heaven itself.
Interestingly, after that introduction, “The Joshua Tree” veers sharply away from dreams of heaven and focuses for the rest of its length on matters of earth, or of hell on earth. It’s dark , to say the least, and it’s a surprise that a work this downbeat has shaped up to be U2’s biggest commercial hit.
Friday’s concert followed the album’s structure to some degree, opening with several inspirational numbers and gradually creeping into creepier territory. The difference is that while the album climaxes mired in the depths of murder, the show rebounded to end on a more up note, with closing sing-along renditions of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and the band’s own interpretation of a biblical psalm, “40.”
Still, the focus on songs from the moody new album meant that the general tone was a little bit calmed down from the raucous energy U2 fans are used to experiencing.
The group reportedly changes its set list from night to night now, so the mood and pace will likely vary each evening. But certainly the most recent songs that are now in the band’s basic repertoire are not the sort that require guitarist The Edge to play those fast, clipped sixteenth notes he became famous for. And the wiry Hewson seemed somewhat less intense as a personality Friday.
Though many fans might disagree, that relative subdual seems like a good sign for U2’s growth--and proof that these four can be just as inspiring without some tricks they’ve pulled in the past.
The biggest trap waiting for U2 has always been a heightened sense of the band’s own importance. Hewson’s stage antics have sometimes bordered on theatricality disguised as spontaneity, and his rehearsed song introductions have tended to come off like grandiose pronouncements from on high.
This time, though, there was little of the overt crowd manipulation that he has indulged in so heavily before, and more sense of genuine humility. No new crowd-pleasing routines were unveiled, and the old ones--like Hewson’s hugging a girl from the crowd during “Bad” or shining a spotlight on the audience during “40"--now seem to have a place as significant rituals, not off-the-cuff hype.
Of course, by being less manipulative, Hewson runs the risk of being less charismatic or less in control--complaints that were heard from a few disappointed fans after the show. But for those to whom the music means more than the charisma, it’s worth losing a little of that old electricity for the sake of seeing U2 mature musically--and the group will need that maturity to make the transition from “Band of the ‘80s” to band of the ‘90s.
The group’s sold-out engagement continues through Wednesday, with Lone Justice as the opening act.