September 17, 2009

Review: U2 in Toronto

U2 must surely find themselves in an odd situation when they tour. On the one hand you have a dedicated core group of fans whose love for the band is based on the fact that U2 refuse to stand still, reinvent themselves, and push their musical boundaries. On the other hand you have a wide-ranging audience, who are simply familiar with U2's enviable catalogue of pop/rock hits and who want nothing less than a greatest hits show.

So, despite being in the game for 30 years it was to U2's great credit last night that their 360 experience opened last night with four songs off their latest album. I am not aware of any of the remaining touring supergroups (Rolling Stones, The Who, Fleetwood Mac, etc.) that would dare attempt to open a 60,000-person show with songs that, quite frankly, only the hardcore fans were familiar with.

It was a gamble and, for the most part, it paid off. I happen to be very fond of the new album and it was a joy to hear the band transmit their sound in the way it was meant to be heard. U2 is the quintessential live band and certainly the kings of the stadium experience; a mantle they stole from Pink Floyd during the tour for 1987's "The Joshua Tree". You can currently watch Coldplay and especially their earnest frontman, Chris Martin, doing their best to assume the throne. Don't get me wrong. I love Coldplay's music. Their melodies are gorgeous. But Chris, for all of his likeability, is not Bono and Coldplay is not yet in U2's league in terms of the audacious wall of sound that these four men can produce.

The attached picture shows the set, which was a monstrous claw-like creature that was superbly lit and featured a retractable screen that raised and lowered. It made the huge venue look a lot smaller and made it feel just a bit more intimate. The production values were top-of-the-line and the sound was heart-stoppingly crystalline. A curious thing has happened as a 20+ year U2 fan--I have started to pay much more attention to the drums and bass, and the mix last night was perfect to appreciate how very good U2's rhythm section of Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton have become (or maybe always were and I never noticed?).

As for the setlist , U2 are in the enviable place of having a rich catalogue to choose from and not enough time to play all the songs that their vast audience wants to hear. In their 2 1/2 hour concert they offered a real grab-bag of material, stretching back to 1983. For a hardcore fan such as myself, any U2 concert is about what is played as well as what is not played. Notably (and probably for some shockingly) absent were war horse standards such as "Pride" (1984), "Bullett the Blue Sky" (1987), "New Year's Day" (1983), and "Bad" (1984).

In their place U2 offered a beautiful version of "The Unforgettable Fire" (1984), a brilliant "Ultraviolet" (1991) and the completely obscure "Your Blue Room" (1995) from a side project they did with Brian Eno. The latter was appreciated by me, although it did not translate all that well into the cavernous stadium.

As for other highlights, I was pleasantly shocked that U2 managed to bring the house down (myself included) with three of my least favourite U2 songs: "Get on Your Boots" (2009), "Elevation" (2000), and "Vertigo" (2004). This trio of songs absolutely rocked the place. The groove was intense and I realized that these songs are meant to be played really loud and live, not sitting on your tiny iPod speakers. These were all-out, old-fashioned guitar riff sex and drugs songs that I have never fully appreciated before. Good on ya, U2.

Biggest surprise of the night was the live remix of "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" (2009), which was just absolutely amazing. I was gobsmacked at the sound quality and the whole sound field was impeccable. It produced the night's first "Holy F*ck" from my lips. The second biggest surprise was a thunderous version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday"(1983), a song that I had hoped would be dropped from the setlist due to overexposure. How wrong I was, for it was the first time I have heard this old song delivered with such intensity and new life!

At one point Bono just stopped singing and the entire stadium stepped in to carry the lyrics to "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (1987). Beautiful moment. The OMG-hairs-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck came with the superb "City of Blinding Lights" (2004), "Until the End of the World" (1991), and "Where the Streets Have No Name" (1987). I swear on that last one the Rogers Centre actually shook. It was breathtaking and the sound was pure and crystalline.

Towards the end of the show U2 played the requisite "One" (1991) and "With or Without You" (1987), the former with a lovely opening video featuring Bishop Desmond Tutu. U2 being U2 they had a great message video about Burma's Ang San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 20 years, and then played their song written for her, "Walk On" (2000). The stage was flooded by Amnesty International volunteers sporting Ang masks. It was cheesy but I have never given Bono flack for his genuine and passionate activism for social justice.

In fact I got quite emotional as I watched Bono on the giant screen, for he really is not only one of a kind but perhaps a last of a kind as well. Bono was once rightly called the Pied Piper of rock, and watching him sing, implore, laugh, run, dance, and gesticulate in the way that only he can made me realize that this concert was to be cherished. U2 has not changed but audiences certainly have, and my heart went out to Bono as he worked very hard to do what he does best; to engage with the front row as much as the back row; to inspire, to challenge, to help make collective dreams possible.

I am grateful. It was a memorable night, with a few touches of magic and grace.

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