By Glenn Whipp / Staff Writer
Welcome, Midway through U2's extraordinary concert Monday night at the Staples Center, a fan handed the group's lead singer, Bono, an American flag. The band was in the middle of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," its galvanizing anthem against violence. Bono stopped dead still, held the flag to his heart and lovingly caressed it for what seemed like an eternity. He then stood up and continued the song, exhorting the audience to "wipe your tears away."
It was a powerful moment in a two-hour show that contained as much emotion as any concert in recent memory. U2 had played in Southern California seven months ago, performing three sold-out concerts at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim. The shows were electrifying, but also a bit perfunctory. No new ground was broken.
The stakes were considerably higher Monday night at Staples, something the band seemed to acknowledge with its choice of preconcert music. Just before U2 took the stage, the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" blared through the hall, followed by "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The obvious message: U2, a band that has alternately embraced and avoided the mantle of rock 'n' roll saviors, came here not merely to entertain, but to heal.
References to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were everywhere, from "Sunday Bloody Sunday's" prayer for peace to cover versions of the Impressions' "People Get Ready" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," which featured Bono in a duet with Gwen Stefani, lead singer of opening act No Doubt.
Bono introduced "Please," a song from the 1997 "Pop" album, as an indictment of "religious fundamentalists, the ones who re-create God from their own image -- tiny, small people." "One," sung during the encore, had the band playing as the names of passengers on the doomed Sept. 11 airplanes, as well as firefighters and police officers who lost their lives, scrolled on video screens behind them.
"We're one/But we're not the same/We've got to carry each other," Bono sang, and the words to the well-traveled song have never resonated more deeply. It was a heart-rending moment.
Bono and bandmates -- guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. -- hail from Ireland, so they're no strangers to the subjects of grief and loss and longing. Their albums are full of beautiful songs on the subjects, and American audiences have embraced them for years.
But as the sold-out Staples audience roared along with these songs -- "New Year's Day"; the new "Kite," which Bono dedicated to his recently deceased father; "Bad"; "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" -- it was silently felt by many in the arena that they now, sadly, understood the songs as never before. And that was one reason people came -- to release their sorrow. And, of course, to rock, too.
So when U2 closed its show with its latest spiritual anthem, "Walk On," with its chorus "I know it aches/and your heart it breaks/You can only take so much/walk on, walk on," the audience thundered its approval, singing every word as if to erase the memories of the last several weeks. Then the people left their seats and walked into the night, feeling comforted and exhilarated by a great band that had delivered a concert as triumphant as any in its storied career.