When U2 released All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2002, you couldn’t help but wonder if it was a passionate return to form or merely the latest metamorphosis in the shape-shifting that marked the band’s previous decade. Understandably weighed down by its own legend after The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, the group devoted the 1990s to trying to escape its image as self-serious, over-earnest rock ’n’ roll saviors.
In the process, U2 made the least-impressive music of its career, cranking out irony-loaded albums like Zooropa and Pop and embarking on tours that were more about fashion than music. All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s title was a wry commentary on the futility of trying to be something other than what you truly are (Bono spent most of his time onstage in the 1990s as Macphisto, the Fly, anything but Bono), and the music was shimmering, driving, heartfelt and full of life, as was the accompanying tour. Rather than reinvent itself once more, U2 followed with last year’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, an album on which the band once again engaged the world with deceptively simple songs that, after repeated spins, had the power to take listeners deeper into themselves.
The band’s show in Chicago Saturday night—the first of four sold-out Windy City dates—was also a stunning return to form. With a set list that focused mostly on material from the new album but covered every stage of the band’s career, U2 has never looked more comfortable in its own skin. Newer tunes “City of Blinding Lights” and “Elevation” sat comfortably alongside the 25-year-old “An Cat Dubh” and “Into the Heart,” and the show-closing duo of 2004’s “Yahweh” and 1983’s “ ‘40’ “ suggests the band has come full circle.
The band once again used the stage setup from the Elevation tour, with the main stage at one end of an open oval runway extending nearly halfway into the United Center’s floor area. During the show, colored lights blasted the perimeter and interior of the runway, while images played on ingenious curtains of bulbs that hung from ceiling to stage. Rather than distract from the music, the special effects were the perfect complement; while images of fighter planes raced across the curtain on “Bullet the Blue Sky,” The Edge kept the music grounded with the bluesiest solo I’ve ever heard him play, sounding more like Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” than anything stereotypically “Edgy.”
The band also put all that technology to good use, projecting the United Nations’ 1948 Declaration of Human Rights on the giant video screens during “Running to Stand Still,” and later asking the crowd to use its cell phones to sign—via text message—the “One Declaration,” an effort to fight AIDS and global poverty (www.one.org). It Sure beat the self-satisfied calls to the White House switchboard Bono used to make during the ZooTV tour. (“They never took my calls anyway,” Bono joked. “[But] now they take my calls,” he added, referring to his much-publicized work on debt relief and African AIDS research.)
The show’s highlight came in an eight-song set-closing sequence. Beginning with the anti-war suite of “New Year’s Day,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky,” then turning inward with “Running to Stand Still” (dedicated to the soldiers in Iraq) and “Bad” before combining the personal and political with “Pride,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and “One,” the last 40 minutes of the show was as powerful as anything the band’s done onstage. During “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Bono donned a headband featuring a hand-drawn Christian cross, a Star of David, and the Muslim crescent moon; at one point he chanted “Jesus, Mohammad, Jew, it’s true;” and it didn’t come off like some toothless “why can’t we all just get along?” rant, but rather a genuine call for people to find common humanity across religious divides.
But the evening’s most telling moments came during “Zoo Station,” which opened the encore with rapid-fire images of everyone from George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein to Bill O’Reilly flashing across the video screens. Bono donned an officer’s cap and circled the runway, punctuating his jackboot-march with the Nazi salute, a commentary on the effects of mass media that was all the more effective for its lack of subtlety. If there’s anything the band learned in the 1990s, it’s that irony is a dead end. Bono closed the song by repeating “We do the show, we do the business, but this is not show business.”
Sure, it’s show business, Bono. But thankfully, that’s not all it is anymore.