September 29, 2009
It’s easy to dismiss U2 at times – for their over the top live shows, for always being in the news, for another good deed from Bono, and for just generally being U2 – arguably the world’s biggest band.
It is easy to forget they were once just a young band from Dublin who made a name for themselves playing stadium-sized anthems when they were still playing clubs.
So few bands (The Stones, Springsteen, who else?) can actually play a stadium and play it convincingly. Too many bands take an arena sized show and try to blow it up to fit the massive confines of a stadium. Or, a band worries about selling out and instead shoe-horns their stadium-sized ambition and ego into a 3000 seat theatre to prove they’re still cool, which makes U2 all the more refreshing.
The first thing you notice as you descend the steps to the field level of FedEx Field is how U2’s stage setup – called the Claw – seems to swallow the entire field in its four arm attack. The top of the setup seemed to reach clear to the top of the stadium, while underneath hung one of the most spectacular video screens ever employed at a live music show. There’s a round elevated stage in the middle with bridges and ramps extending over a section of fans to another circular stage which seemed to take up half the field. It is a widely ambitious stage set up – the largest ever built – and for a band that regularly does ambitious that is a mouthful. There are so many lights protruding from the stage, that when they all got to flashing and glowing at one time, it looked like some futuristic space station threw up on FedEx Field.
The night’s music was as one would expect – a mix of their brand new album, No Line on the Horizon (including “Get On Your Boots” and the dance worthy remix of “I’ll Go Crazy, If I Don’t Crazy Tonight” ), classic tunes (“New Years Day,” “With or Without You,” “One,” and the slightly obscure (“Your Blue Room”), or as lead singer Bono said after the opening combo of “Breathe” and “Magnificent,” “We got old songs for you, we got new songs, we got songs we don’t even know how to play.”
U2 long ago figured out to get the most out of a stadium, making even those stuck in the nose-bleed-highest-corner-of-the-stadium seats feel like part of the show. Throughout the night the band prowled around the stage, taking time to play to all sides, moving from the center stage across the bridges and ramps out to the outer stage, while Bono took time to talk and connect with the crowd.
Sometimes lost in the hype Bono gets for his humanitarian work is that he is a great front man in the truest sense of the word. As he has since the band’s earliest days, he worked the crowd until every last eye in the place is on the band. U2 has long worn their emotions and politics on their sleeves, unafraid to speak their minds, and their live shows are no different. Bono has never been too bashful to share his thoughts, and this evening was no different. During “Walk On,” Bono discussed Burma’s Prime Minister Suu Kyi who has been under house arrest for twenty years while a parade of fans in Suu Kyi masks filled the stage; they showed a filmed Bishop Desmond Tutu speech before “One,” and the highlight of the night was the politically-charged “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” With the stage shrouded in green lights and green smoke and images of bloodied protesters from the recent election troubles in Iran flashing across the gigantic video screen, the band tore into their classic, pouring just as much energy and emotion into the song as they did when it was simply a tune about the troubles in their homeland of Ireland.
Contrasting the over-the-top bombastic overtures are the quieter moments the band created throughout the night – the subtle addition of a few verses of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” onto the end of “Beautiful Day” to the rendering of the rarity “Your Blue Room” from their 1995 side project Passengers with Brian Eno.
The delicate delivery of “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” featured only Bono and The Edge on acoustic guitar. It was a moment that reminded you that despite their propensity to write chest-pounding anthems, these quieter moments have long been the most overlooked part of the band’s arsenal. And many times in these subtle moments on stage, when the band seems to draw back into themselves and Bono isn’t trying to blow the roof of with another bombastic chorus, the true power of U2 is revealed.
It was with one of these moments that U2 brought their show to an end. After an encore of “Ultraviolet” that featured Bono in a suit lined with LEDs, and a version of “With Or Without You” that got the crowd of 80,000 plus singing, the night drew to a close with “Moment to Surrender,” a cut off their new album. An introspective song that fits well into their deep catalog, its inclusion as the closer seemed to draw mixed emotions, “They should have closed with something everyone knew, that we could rock out to,” was overheard.
But as the song ended and the four life-long friends and band mates stood arm and arm and took their bows and walked off together, the choice suddenly seemed perfect.