By Tony Hicks
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
Bono was at the apex of the V-shaped stage, extending halfway through the crowd at the Oakland Arena on Thursday night during the chunky guitar breakdown of an otherwise subdued "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
A man in the audience waved a large American flag, offering it to the U2 singer. Bono bent over as gently as when he plucked a little girl out of the crowd moments earlier, and paraded around the stage with her atop his shoulders.
He gathered in the flag and held it to his chest, closing his eyes and dipping his head into a soft embrace. Bono wordlessly cradled the flag for 30 seconds, as sweetly as if it were a newborn baby. An arena full of 20,000 people, the band, the camera flashes -- and all the music just faded away.
That seemingly soundless and fragile moment conveyed more hope than any song, speech or flag flown since Sept. 11. Just a man -- an Irishman, no less -- showing his love of America in the simplest way possible. Bono then carefully handed the flag back to the owner, and seemed to thank him for sharing.
The beauty of Bono's gesture was that everyone knew something was coming. The most politically outspoken and charitable musician since John Lennon had to do something inspired, though even that paled in comparison to the emotionally-wrenching show-ender "One" that later reduced grown men to tears.
The music itself was important, though certainly at times a backdrop. U2 inspires people not only with beautiful, soaring and sometimes irrepressibly fun songs, but unselfish motives as well. They're certainly rock stars, but it's how they take on that role that matters. It's never mattered more than now. A band that has crusaded for peace, hope and charity for two decades could do nothing less than inspire in troubling times.
It's exactly why newspapers roll back policies on not writing about a band twice on the same tour. It's exactly why, on any given night, U2 is the most important band on the planet.
The world has changed since early last spring, when the band first came to the Bay Area touring behind its album "All That You Can't Leave Behind." You could nearly mail in a U2 concert review: "opened with 'Elevation' ... honored Martin Luther King ... played a great 'Where the Streets Have No Name,'" etc.
That's not to say they aren't worth reviewing. But Thursday was different. More than two months after Sept. 11, there's a heightened danger of artists becoming a parody of the "caring entertainer" role. Just about anything that can be said about the terrorists attacks already has been -- from people whose only expertise is that they get paid to make music.
Thursday wasn't a political rally or a benefit show; it was still a rock concert. But the nonpolitical gestures of remembrance and messages of peace and hope will be the memories people take away from the experience.
The show's first half was actually bereft of any mention of Sept. 11 -- the band simply walked on and began playing under the house lights. Bono and guitarist The Edge frequently ran out onto the runway, sometimes stalking each other and nearly getting into a brotherly wrestling match.
But something genuine began building after the flag-hugging moment that would peak with a version of "One" that had people crying. Bono said the band felt "proud and humbled" to be in America in the aftermath of the attacks, and later had words for those who "re-create God in their own image ... people who come from good homes."
But that was the extent of the preaching, allowing songs like "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)," and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" (which Bono sang with No Doubt's Gwen Stefani), stand on their own potency -- as did projected shadows of skyscrapers around the stage.
The last song was as powerful of a remembrance of Sept. 11 victims as I've seen. Bono spoke of being in New York recently and how dismayed people were at seeing their loved ones reduced to fatality statistics on the nightly news. "The people they lost weren't statistics, they were people," he said, strumming the opening chords to "One." With that, a video screen behind the stage emerged and the names of the victims began rolling.
It was a simple yet overwhelming tribute. First the names of the airplane passengers went by, followed by the New York policemen. Then came the New York firemen -- that's when the enormity of it all hit home. Name after name after name, up there in big personal letters -- all people with families and lives they left behind, while Bono sang of "carrying each other."
The moment was without judgment, anger and rhetoric, and gave the most jaded and detached adults something about which to both grieve and feel hopeful. They couldn't have spread a better message in a better way.