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U2's Stage Masterpiece

(San Jose Mercury News) -- The message at most concerts these days is simple: Buy our CDs, buy our T-shirts, make us rich and party on, dude.

U2's insistence to go beyond that is only one of the things that distinguishes the Irish band, which wouldn't need much of a campaign to be voted the best rock band in the world today.

During its 23-song, two-hour-show at San Jose's HP Pavilion Saturday night, the quartet not only was excellent musically, it was thought-provoking and politically stirring.

"You are used to hearing me pontificate," said singer Bono, born Paul Hewson 44 years ago, using a word that never has been more appropriate. "No self-respecting rock star is missing a little bit of a pope complex."

He used his bully pulpit to weave his political and economic concerns in with his music. No rock star today has become more of a thoughtful world figure (the bumper stickers endorsing him for president in 2008 weren't far off the mark).

Bono wasn't joking when he recalled how, during the band's 1992 Zooropa tour, he called the White House every night and no one there would take the calls. "Now, they do," he said. "And they are getting used to me."

At one point he asked those in the audience to raise their cell phones, extending a tradition begun in the dark ages of the 1969 Woodstock festival, when 300,000 people raised lit matches and turned the audience into a sea of stars.

In San Jose, phones pulsed colorfully like the background of a Star Wars film. But Bono added some content to the awe-inspiring sight at this sold-out show, posting a Web site on giant screens where fans could send text messages to pledge support of his campaign to fight poverty, something he hopes will enlist at least a million contributors over the course of this American tour.

Bono said the "defining moral issue of our time" is "not civil rights, but human rights. A fight for the right to live like a human."

The singer, whose political awards one day may outnumber his musical ones, has been fighting to raise money for Third World countries and to suspend their debts to industrialized ones.

"When Dr. King said, 'I have a dream,' he was talking about a dream big enough to fit the whole world," Bono said before launching an Africanized version of "Where the Streets Have No Name." "Not just the American dream or the European dream or the Asian dream or the African dream. It is a dream where everyone is created equal under the eyes of God."

At the centerpiece of the band's Elevation tour in 2001 was a giant memorial listing the names of the victims of the Sept. 11 attack. It was moving and subtle and brought tears to a rock audience more used to the opposites of subtlety and sobriety.

This time U2 presented the text of a 1948 United Nations proclamation condemning torture and calling for equal rights around the world. It followed the dedication of "Running to Stand Still" to the "brave men and women of the United States military," a moment that was not just subtle but ironic.

But what about the music, you are wondering. Sorry, I know you've never had to wade so far into a rock concert review to get to that.

For a decade, U2 has made excellence seem routine and did so again this time.

The band, which sold out two San Jose shows but has tickets remaining for a pair in Oakland in November, drew heavily from its last two albums, something few other stadium rock bands can do today. The show opened with a shimmering "City of Blinding Lights," shifting up to "Vertigo" and into higher gear still with "Elevation."

Then, in a moment that had to give pause to San Joseans who last year lost KSJO-FM, their only hard-rock FM radio station, Bono introduced "The Electric Co.," remembering how "we felt so cool" when we heard it on that station in 1980.

While no member of this quartet is considered a virtuoso at his instrument, the sum of these parts, having working together for 25 years, creates the rich textures of an orchestra. The stage set was again state-of-the-art, with a giant beaded curtain that also served as a screen for color and video.

The new songs, particularly a bass-whomping "Love and Peace or Else," broke through the shells that encase the album versions.

The band's melodic influences often are well-camouflaged, but a clear snippet of the Beatles' "Blackbird" was thrown into "Beautiful Day," which rang with some of the same chords, and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" was spliced into "Bullet the Blue Sky."

Using a heart-shaped walkway that extended the stage into the audience, the band methodically covered the hits that broke it on U.S. radio, "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day," the fan-favorite closer "40," a heavy industrial "The Fly" and "Mysterious Ways." The only miss of the night was adding a watered-down melody to the normally astringent "Zoo Station."

And that was like the work of a religious master painter who adds a slight mistake, just to show that nothing human is perfect.

With its mix of politics, spirituality, charisma and intense playing, this concert was simply a masterpiece.

Brad Kava


Posted on by Macphisto


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