The band's hits, recharged with Bono's heartfelt sincerity at Staples Center, powerfully resonate with new meaning in the post-Sept. 11 world.
By ROBERT HILBURN, Times Pop Music Critic
"Growing up in Ireland, I was not fond of flags," Bono said Monday during U2's emotionally charged concert at Staples Center. "Until a few weeks ago, I wouldn't have felt the way I do about that flag either."
The singer was staring at a U.S. flag draped over a drum kit, adding that he has long been suspicious of patriotism because of Northern Ireland's history of killings in the name of God and country.
But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 made him realize his own deep affection for the United States, and have made him comfortable with the nation's grandest symbol.
"Something about the words 'rock 'n' roll' and 'freedom' that feels like the same thing," he added, introducing the night's chief song of unity by dramatically raising a single index finger over his head.
Almost immediately, the band began playing "One," U2's greatest song of healing, defined by its caressing melody and lyrics such as, "We get to carry each other." People have turned to "One" for comfort in various ways since it was included on the "Achtung Baby" album in 1991, but it has rarely seemed more powerful than on this night.
Adding to the song's impact was the use of video screens at the rear of the stage. As the band played with its usual mixture of intensity and grace, the names of the hundreds of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks were scrolled across the screen.
It's as easy in this cynical era to be suspicious of this kind of warm, openhearted gesture as it is to worry about blind allegiance to symbols. But the magic of U2 has been its ability to operate for two decades with an absolute sincerity and conviction.
It was difficult Monday night to imagine that U2 was widely ridiculed in parts of the rock community early in its career for being overly serious and, even, self-righteous.
How dare Bono, guitarist Edge, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton have the nerve to employ the name of the Rev. Martin Luther King in a song about high ideals or speak in interviews about rock 'n' roll as a meaningful social force?
These, of course, are the qualities that now have U2 widely seen as the greatest of rock's post-'60s bands--a group whose ambition, depth and deeply rooted humanism is all the more resonant in the anxieties of the day.
There was an especially dramatic moment early in the set when a fan handed Bono a U.S. flag during the performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
Bono wrote the song in 1983 to express his disillusionment with the continuing strife in Northern Ireland--a song, much like John Lennon's "Imagine," that longed for a time without flags and other sociopolitical divisions. Yet, he paused during "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and cradled the flag in his hands Monday, much like a father holding his child, protecting it from all harm.
Returning to Staples Center on the second leg of a tour that included stops at the Arrowhead Pond in April, U2 relied pretty much on the same group of songs.
That means songs with the uplifting sound of such newer tunes as "Walk On" and "Kite" as well as the biting commentary of the older "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Bullet the Blue Sky."
But the differences in the two shows was as great as the difference in this country between Sept. 10 and Sept. 12.
U2 and No Doubt perform Monday at Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., L.A.  624-3100. 7:30 p.m. Sold out.