By Daniel Durchholz
STLtoday.com entertainment editor
Near the end of U2's two-hour concert at Savvis Center on Wednesday night, lead singer Bono made it a point to tell the crowd "how proud and humble we are to be on tour in the United States at this time."
He was referring, of course, to the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which seemingly finds Americans imbued with a renewed vigor and spirit of togetherness where there once was only shock and sadness.
Funny how we sometimes get a truer picture of ourselves by listening to those who come from other lands. Irishman Bono is hardly de Tocqueville, but he does seem to have a pretty good handle on where we are as a country right now, and what sort of healing we need.
On Wednesday, U2's songs were the perfect balm for those still hurting. Though many of the group's political and spiritual anthems were written in response to other world events—the troubles in Northern Ireland, U.S. military involvement in Central America, and the struggle against tyranny and torture everywhere—they all seemed to resonate with recent happenings, making for a concert that was highly emotional and even cathartic.
The connection that the band—which also includes guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr.—was able to make with the near-sellout crowd at Savvis was due to those songs, sure, but also to the concert's staging. U2's previous two tours were all about spectacle—"Zoo TV" featured the sensory overload of TV monitors, message boards and small East German cars flying in the rafters; "PopMart" sported the world's largest video screen and a 35-foot motorized mirrorball in the shape of a lemon.
The "Elevation" tour, meanwhile, is simply staged, with stark, mostly white lighting, a heart-shaped runway that juts far out into the audience, and smaller video screens whose images are all in black and white. This allowed the show's emphasis to remain squarely on the music, and on the charismatic presence of Bono, who interacted with the audience throughout the concert.
Opening with an explosive version of "Elevation" with the house lights still turned up, the band moved through "Beautiful Day" and "Until the End of the World" before turning to a selection of tunes from early in their career, including "New Year's Day," "I Will Follow," and "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
During the latter song, Bono accepted an American flag from an audience member and draped it over his shoulder, slow dancing with empty arms and then caressing the flag before singing the line, "Wipe your tears away." It was the first of several chill-inducing moments of the night.
From there it was on to "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," which Bono said was written as a conversation he wished he'd had with INXS singer Michael Hutchence, who committed suicide. "Kite," a song about a farewell of another sort, was next, followed by "Angel of Harlem."
If the band's connection with the crowd wasn't cemented by that point, it was after Bono pulled a couple of audience members up onstage to play piano and guitar on a version of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." The guitarist, wearing a U2 jersey and an Edge-style watch cap, milked his rock star moment, circling the runway and soaking up the applause.
When the pair lingered too long after the song's conclusion, Bono joked, "All right, we got a show to do, (expletive) off."
The band then played "Please," a song about religious fanatics, who Bono characterized as "tiny, insignificant, pathetic." After "Bad," they performed an exhilarating version "Where the Streets Have No Name" as a large wall of white light emerged behind the stage and Bono dashed around the runway like a track star.
The set came to a close with "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," during which the singer interpolated a bit of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," and "Pride (In the Name of Love)," which featured a video clip of Martin Luther King.
The first of two encores brought out "Bullet the Blue Sky" and a hushed, intimate version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," which Bono recently spearheaded as a charity single for the September 11 Fund as well as AIDS research. The band then played "New York," a song about loving the city despite itself, which drew fervent cheers, prompting Bono to declare, "Even St. Louis loves New York."
The second encore featured an extraordinarily emotional trilogy of tunes, starting with "One." As Bono sang the lyrics, "We're one, but we're not the same/We get to carry each other," the names of those killed in the terrorist attacks began scrolling over the stage, the backdrops, and even the audience, bringing some in attendance to tears.
"Peace on Earth" and "Walk On," followed, the songs expressing, in turn, sadness and despair, then resolve. For almost any other band, such an audacious encore would be seen as grandstanding, but such emotional displays are simply a part of who U2 are and what they do best.
"Don't forget us now," Bono said as the group left the stage for the last time. Certainly no one who witnessed this near-perfect show will do that for a very long time.