Invigorated by a new purpose, the band electrifies with emotional overload.
By BEN WENER
The Orange County Register
First of all, it was better than the Pond show.
Far, far better than the Pond show.
The improvement in U2 could be attributed to any number of reasons. The set list, for starters. It has been changing every night, but the overall flow of Monday's Staples Center opener was perfect, a two-hour sampling that spanned from the band's first single, "Out of Control," to its most recent, the get-yourself-together motivation of "Stuck in a Moment That You Can't Get Out Of."
Better than that, they've shaken off the lethargy, especially Bono. A lengthy tour routinized by an uncountable number of victory laps around that heart-shaped stage has left him fitter, healthier, more alive. Not long ago he appeared as a bloated superstar teetering toward has-been status; now he's again mean and hungry.
But whatever you might point to as determinants that have pushed U2's catharsis into high-gear, we all know what the turning point was.
The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the escalating war on terrorism, the need for patience and peace have given U2 a new purpose. And if anything is plainly evident about these pop prophets, it's that they need a purpose to be great.
You could see the rediscovered passion in virtually every moment of their performance. The Edge slashing at his guitar with fury. Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton underpinning standards with gracefulness, tranquility. Bono digging deep within himself, strengthening his resolve as his voice cracked and failed, singing like every internal organ was clenching up.
It is moments like this that make them legendary. Mere months ago they were little more than a good-natured nostalgia act giving lifelong fans a treat. Yet once again they appear to be one of few groups capable of moving the masses. Change the world? Not likely. Help it heal and inspire it to look for nonviolent solutions? Absolutely.
Which doesn't mean that the current climate has erased Bono's tendency toward Job-like theatricality. Toward the end of "Elevation," he looked skyward. "I believe in you," he said, then yelled: "You believe in me? Huh?!"
A bit much, but he's always been a bit much. And here that gesture foreshadowed a flood of favorites addressing life as we now know it in vivid detail. Like Dylan or Springsteen, U2 has a song for every occasion - and like the Boss but unlike Bob, they rise to those occasions, never shying away from grand statements.
Hearing them this night, however, was almost too emotional an experience.
"New Year's Day" and its cry that "We can be one." "New York," its meaning recontextualized.
"Please," written about Ireland's troubles, here revamped with new lyrics ("Remember, it's starting again"). "Where the Streets Have No Name," given a sermonizing prologue ("What can I give back to God for the blessings that are all around?") that emphasized the song's despair.
"Pride (In the Name of Love)," like going to church with 20,000 friends. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and its command to "Wipe your tears away" - and of course someone handed Bono an American flag instead of an Irish one.
But he didn't wave it, only held it like a baby, protecting it. "Nothing to be afraid of," he said afterward. "I was just praying for peace - in your country, in my country."
And the finale - "One" bleeding into "Walk On," as a backdrop scrolled names of the dead. From American Airlines Flights 11 and 77. From United Airlines Flights 93 and 175. From the NYPD. From the FDNY. "These are our sisters, these are our brothers," Bono sang.
Yeah, it was obvious. U2 isn't known for subtlety. But if that closing didn't at least bring a small lump to your throat, the universal, unifying power of rock 'n' roll must have passed you by long ago.
No Doubt delivered a fun set, though surely Gwen Stefani and the guys would be the first to admit it mattered little compared with the main event. They played every hit and were rusty for half of them. But the new songs, especially the dance-hall groove of "Hey Baby," suggest that their future looks rosy.
More memorable than their turn, however, was Gwen's duet with Bono on Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." Her cartoonish voice wasn't entirely suited to the plea for compassion, but the pair's fist-raising solidarity was certainly crowd-pleasing.