There is nothing subtle about U2. I don’t think the band understands the concept. It’s possible none of them have ever heard the word. Playing arenas or, as they did last night, stadiums, strips those opportunities away. There’s no room in a crowd of 80,000 for a stool and gentle strumming. Under ordinary circumstance, I would find this problematic. But U2 is not an ordinary band and a U2 show is never about quiet reflection. It’s about big moments – the bigger the better.
I was fortunate enough to be able to check out the band’s gig at the Georgia Dome. After an excellent opener (Muse, a surprisingly heavy live act), the band rolled out hit after hit, putting on display its surprisingly deep catalogue and uncanny ability to connect with an extraordinarily large crowd via music, stagecraft and a sense of earnestness that never feels forced or affected. Even the ‘quiet’ moments, such as an acoustic version of Stuck In a Moment, the band understood and delivered on its unofficial mission statement to make big and brash not only palatable, but preferable.
Here’s the thing. Much has been made of the band’s current stage set. It’s a giant rig that looks like the unholy marriage of a sci fi spaceship and one of those arcade cuddly toy claws machines. And while the set, with its 360 degree video screens, wild lights and moving walkways, was impressive, it never became the show. Instead, it was a tool. A giant, incredibly costly tool. It allowed the band to connect with an oppressively large crowd. It allowed the band, still performing as a simple four piece, to accentuate the tunes, to punctuate the performance. It’s a testament to U2 that not only could they successfully perform under the shadow of so much technology, but that they probably could have sold the songs without any bells and whistles at all.
I’ll admit, I like U2. I always have. I am not, however, a super-fan. I don’t get breathless on release dates. I don’t hang on every piece of U2 news. The most recent release, with the exception of a few songs, actually left me a little cold. So it says something that a band can come out and strip me of my cynicism (which runs deep) and encourage, perhaps even insist, that I embrace the songs, the set and the band’s bravado.