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Elias Stein

The Pride of U2

A free album no one asked for. A massive tour millions will see. A legendary career. An army of haters. To be U2 is to be in contradiction with the culture, while trying to be the culture. Thirty-five years into its existence, what does the band mean now?

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y the time I arrive for my interview backstage at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena, hours before the second show of a 70-date world tour that U2 launched there in the middle of May, one of the world’s most famous and tenured rock bands is the talk of all media. But it’s not for the state-of-the-art stage setup. Or the thematically ambitious structure of the set-list. Or any of the other talking points for the Innocence + Experience tour. Rather, it’s for this video of The Edge falling off the stage on opening night. As Bono joked at the next gig, U2’s laconic guitarist downloaded himself into the audience without permission, and tweeters around the world predictably went crazy.

I was at that fateful concert but somehow missed The Edge’s accidental contribution to the viral promotion of U2’s latest global conquest. It didn’t seem like the people around me noticed, either. The tumble occurred near the end of the night’s final song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” as all four band members — Bono, The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. — walked from the main stage across a long platform that extends the length of the arena under two massive LED screens to the relatively intimate “B” stage. The Edge fell near where he was supposed to step off, so from a distance it appeared as if he exited of his own volition.1

I didn’t realize what had happened until the next day, when every person who knew I was in Vancouver messaged me to ask if I had seen The Edge get his comeuppance from that dastardly lowercase edge. A few days later, it was a joke on SNL’s “Weekend Update.” Given U2’s recent PR problems, it could have been worse: At least the public seemed to be laughing with them this time.

Apple Unveils iPhone 6Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As I’m led past security and into a curtained-off receiving room, it’s as if U2’s Tosh.0 moment never occurred. One of U2’s publicists marvels at how well the tour launch went, with no major screwups, and I wonder if he’s looked at the Internet yet. Of course, a tour like this demands tunnel vision.

After grossing almost three-quarters of a billion dollars the last time it was on the road for the U2 360 tour in 2009-11 — the most successful tour in history — U2 is back again as one of rock’s last great white sharks. Nothing is permitted to impede forward progress. To name just one example of adversity: On the Sunday before opening night, Larry Mullen’s father, 92-year-old Larry Sr., died in a Dublin hospital. As speculation swirled about whether the tour would be delayed, Mullen boarded a private jet, flew home to Ireland for the funeral on Wednesday, and then returned to Vancouver in time for Thursday’s tour open.

There have been other signs of attrition, most notably Bono’s bike accident last November, which left him with a broken eye orbit, a fractured shoulder blade, and a badly broken left humerus. Just this week, U2’s longtime tour manager, Dennis Sheehan, was found dead in his West Hollywood hotel room. In the grand scheme of calamities that can befall an aging rock band, an endless blooper reel on Vine is a small blip.

“It’s the experience of going to Bonnaroo that people like — it doesn’t really matter if Elton John or Hozier or Imagine Dragons is playing,” Pollstar’s Gary Bongiovanni told me. U2 is a rarity in that its brand is strong enough to sell tickets wherever it plays.

“They’re a global attraction,” Bongiovanni said. “They can play Estonia or eastern Australia, it doesn’t matter.”

After Vancouver, U2 was set to perform in arenas for multiple nights in some of North America’s biggest cities — this week there are five shows in Los Angeles, and later this summer there will be residencies in Denver, Montreal, Chicago, Toronto, Boston, and New York City, followed by a trip through Europe in the fall. More than 1 million tickets have already been sold. Everyone involved in steering this perpetually roving beast must keep their eyes trained forward and not sweat the small stuff, for the good of the shark.

U2-1988United Archives GmbH / Alamy

Waiting for me inside the receiving room is Adam Clayton, 55, who is craggishly handsome and speaks with the cool remove of a Bond villain. When I was a grade-school kid in the late ’80s just starting to get into U2 — which was my entrée into caring about rock bands, period —Clayton was known as the “party guy” in the group.2 But when I meet him, Clayton is not the Zoo TV–era carouser of my imagination.

Clayton greets me warmly, offering a seat on the sofa while pulling up an office chair for himself. His wardrobe is rock-star casual: black slacks, black slip-on sneakers, white-and-black T-shirt. On the table is a dark-colored drink that looks like matcha green tea.

“Looking out at that audience, they looked like a very much revitalized U2 audience,” Clayton says in a dry, regal purr of the tour’s opening night. “They looked younger or the same as the last time we were out. The way the record went out to people, I think a lot of people heard the songs. I think it’s a great album. I think everyone really pushed themselves to make a great record. I think Bono went to a place that was painful and difficult, and he went there and he got really good stuff that’s in these songs.”

The record to which Clayton refers, Songs of Innocence, came out eight months ago, and has been mostly overshadowed by how it was distributed, via a free, involuntary download to 500 million unwitting iTunes users. While Songs got the requisite five-star review and album of the year honors from Rolling Stone, it received mixed to negative notices elsewhere in the music press and, more crucially, was ignored by radio, historically an engine for U2’s success. As with U2’s previous album, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, Songs of Innocence has not produced a hit single, a stinging rebuke of U2’s decision to utilize trendy producers like Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, and Ryan Tedder to give the album a more contemporary, pop-friendly sound.

The challenge of U2’s stage show is to contextualize a record that was derided as “spam” and “Apple’s $100 million U2 debacle” as a personal, creatively vital statement.3 For its part, U2 isn’t backing down from supporting Songs of Innocence, interspersing several songs from the record on this tour among the proven audience favorites. The new material is most prominent during the show’s first act, which includes a suite of the album’s most explicitly autobiographical tracks, including “Iris (Hold Me Close),” a pained tribute to Bono’s late mother, and “Cedarwood Road,” named after the street where Bono lived as a child. These songs are accompanied by home movies of Bono’s parents and animated footage starring Bono’s 15-year-old son, Elijah, playing a teenaged version of his father.

At the conclusion of the concert’s first half, the two video screens are lowered to the narrow platform connecting the stages, literally and figuratively dividing U2’s audience, a metaphor for youthful alienation that is swiftly resolved in the show’s reconciliatory (translation: hits-oriented) second act. Between the sets is a brief intermission during which video clips of U2’s early heroes — Iggy Pop, David Bowie, the Clash, Patti Smith — play on the screens. It’s the most visually overpowering Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit ever conceived.

Here’s a grandiose analogy that Bono might appreciate: If Marcel Proust had been inspired by an old Ramones song instead of a madeleine cookie, Remembrance of Things Past would have resembled Songs of Innocence and its accompanying tour.4

“I think it’s always a little dangerous when artists go back too far, because we were always aware that we had to avoid being nostalgic. We had to have a reason for going back. The reason for going back on those formative years was we had to understand how we’ve arrived at where we are now,” Clayton says between sips of his green drink. “I remember the kind of blind faith and ignorance that we had in where we were going and what our vision was. I think the songs represent a naïveté and a fragility, but also a strength and truthfulness that sometimes you don’t give yourself credit for.”

U2 might’ve wanted to avoid nostalgia during the making of Songs of Innocence, but the release strategy stemmed from a melancholic desire to revive a vanished world. In a way, U2 attempted to re-create market conditions that benefited records like 1987’s The Joshua Tree, 1991’s Achtung Baby, and 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which established early beachheads with popular radio standards and continued to maintain a presence in the culture for months, even years, afterward. In retrospect, they’re remembered as touchstone records for their eras. U2’s goal was to similarly transform Songs of Innocence into an event.

“Just to puncture public consciousness at this time is really, really hard, so we were trying to think of ways that would get our album through to people,” The Edge told the New York Times last month. “The prospect of putting it out and have it just disappearing down a rabbit hole, which seems to happen to so many albums now — that would be soul-destroying.”

If you’re Beyoncé, it’s an ambitious but not impossible goal to put out an album with real legs. For a band like U2, whose debut LP came out 35 years ago, believing that the denizens of a youth-obsessed pop marketplace would want a record about the growing pains of middle age forcibly implanted on their phones is delusional, bordering on self-destructive.

When I ask Clayton about this, I expect him to shrug off the suggestion that U2 can no longer go broad like it once did, especially since he’s four hours away from performing in front of 18,000 people.

Instead, I’m surprised to find that he sort of agrees.

“I do feel part of a different world where we used to see albums come out, we used to see tracks going to radio and those albums would become more and more popular,” Clayton says. “This new way, I don’t really understand. We’re [part of] a generation that no longer gets music the way we like to listen. Does that mean that everyone else that’s getting their music in a different way is not getting as intense of an experience? I don’t really know the answer to that.

“I think, sadly, what we’re seeing happen is, albums as collections of music had a cultural significance that told a story and connected people, [and] now have social media filling that role. Music no longer has that social or political place in the community. It’s become a novelty and a soundtrack because I don’t think there’s any real invested loyalty anymore. It’s a different relationship.”

I pose what seems like an obvious follow-up question: What motivates U2 to keep making records?

“Well, partly the answer is, it’s kind of the only thing that I do,” Clayton says. “I do love playing music. I do love listening to music. I do love making music. That’s not gonna change. If it wasn’t with U2, I don’t know how motivated I’d be, but I still get a buzz out of the way Larry plays drums, the way Edge writes songs, the way Bono sings them. It’s fulfilling and interesting to me. Maybe one day it won’t be. For as long as it’s stimulating, the ambitions for the music might change, but the actual enjoyment of it won’t.”

What do you mean, “the ambitions for the music might change”?

“You can make music for different reasons,” Clayton replies. “Up to now, inclusive of this record, we wanted to make music that could communicate to the most people, that could be played on the radio. We were conscious that we wanted to be relevant to this time. That’s not something that we might always want. We have a very loyal, strong, intelligent audience. We might make music just for them in the future. We might not want to connect with other people.”

Clayton’s thinking seems totally reasonable and refreshingly self-aware. As a fan, it makes me hopeful that U2 might once again make an album for people who already like U2.5 But there’s another part of me that feels a little sad. If U2 becomes interested in only catering to a niche, is that really U2?

U2-1980Getty Images

From the beginning, U2 has bugged people. Even before U2 was famous, the band’s unbridled hubris and arena-rock aspirations provoked a backlash. Way back in 1981, not long after he saw U2 play at First Avenue in Minneapolis, Paul Westerberg of the Replacements wrote a piss-taking response to “I Will Follow” called “Kids Don’t Follow” for the punk band’s Stink EP. Jaundiced listeners like Westerberg viewed “I Will Follow” as a call to conformity. “Kids Don’t Follow” was fired off as an early shot against U2’s drive for cultural manifest destiny.

U2’s Tracy Flick–like tendencies were bound to rub those inclined to embrace a band of lovable losers like the Replacements the wrong way.6 As U2 grew in stature, so did its army of haters. Every 10 years or so, U2 would swing a little too big and fail spectacularly, prompting an intense public lashing. The bombastic 1988 concert documentary Rattle and Hum and 1997’s halfhearted electronica LP Pop were like relief valves that released accumulations of anti-U2 sentiment. Anyone sick of reading the band’s worshipful press — inevitably adorned with Anton Corbijn’s stoned-faced photographs and Bono’s hectoring pull quotes about pop art or apar-theid — could finally call out U2 without feeling out of step with the crushing centrifugal force of dominant taste.

It’s a little amazing that U2 is still polarizing so many years after “Kids Don’t Follow.” No band is as loved or as despised, which is its own kind of relevance. The sellouts for the Innocence + Experience tour speak for themselves — consider that U2 can choose to not play stadiums. Meanwhile, the haters have found solace in the echo chamber of social media, where U2 is yet another amorphous, mainstream, and terminally uncool target, the Two and a Half Men of rock bands.

When Songs of Innocence arrived uninvited on everyone’s phones in September, millions of comically exaggerated, quasi-outraged hot takes flooded the Internet. This tweet by the English writer Warren Ellis typifies the tone: “Apple owes me an iPhone, because I had to purify this one with fire after finding a U2 album on it.” Even for people inclined to cut U2 some slack, like Jim James of My Morning Jacket, it was a little much.

“You can’t not hear U2, they fucking put it on your phone,” James said. “I can’t go five minutes without hearing them in the world. When a band’s that giant, it’s easy for indie rock kids to hate U2.”

Then there’s the record itself. Songs of Innocence is U2’s worst LP — the filler is weaker on other “worst U2 LP” contenders like Pop and No Line on the Horizon, but the peaks on Songs don’t approach those other albums’ high marks.7 U2 labored over Songs for years as Bono publicly fretted over the band’s future, and every ounce of flop sweat is apparent when you play it. Conflicting agendas hamstring the record at every turn — it’s a slick pop album with heavy, adult-oriented lyrics; a tribute to late-’70s punk where the guitars are turned down too low; and a heartfelt childhood remembrance loaded with specific details about the band’s past presented as a generic, one-size-fits-all accoutrement to the latest iPhone iteration.

U2-20013DD Entertainment Ltd / Photofest

When I brought up U2’s image problems to Will Butler of Arcade Fire — one of the bands most often brought up as U2’s heir, along with Coldplay and the Killers — he gently pointed to the band’s artistic shortcomings as the culprit.

“When U2 is doing something grandiose and the music is there, you’re like, ‘Oh right, ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ is very good.’ You could enter in on a helicopter on that song and it would be totally acceptable,” he said. “If the music isn’t as good, then it’s a lot more infuriating.”

Weeks before I left for Vancouver, I listened to Songs of Innocence as I did the U2 records of my youth, when I played and replayed The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby endlessly on my Walkman because they were among the small handful of tapes I owned. Songs didn’t get better with repetition, but I did come to appreciate the poignancy of a band once again grasping for spiritual and emotional uplift and remaining frustratingly earthbound.

When I originally reviewed Songs of Innocence, I wrote that the first track, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” sounded “like if Gary Glitter recorded a State Farm commercial.” That description still holds true for me, but now I can hear a lot of what I love about U2 in that song too. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” might be corny and overproduced, but the core belief in rock’s power to be a mind-blowing life-changer — as long as it’s the MOST BEAUTIFUL SONG YOU’VE EVER HEARD — can also be found at the heart of U2’s grandest successes.

My favorite song on Songs of Innocence is “Every Breaking Wave” — not the album’s official version, but rather the piano-and-voice remake included as a bonus track, which is lovely enough to suggest that Songs could’ve been a good LP had U2’s better instincts prevailed. It’s a song about the choice that every person must face once adulthood can’t be put off any longer — do I keep chasing windmills or face reality? Weirdly, “Every Breaking Wave” seems to comment on the aftermath of Songs of Innocence before it happened.

In the first verse, Bono sings a line that could sum up U2’s career: “Every gambler knows that to lose / is what you’re really there for.” As I hear it, Bono is singing to U2’s audience. Every iconic, spine-tingling moment that’s come to define U2 is predicated on a gamble that could’ve very easily gone wrong. The earnest bombast of the breakout Live Aid performance in 1985, the winking multimedia assault of Zoo TV, that part during the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show when Bono hollers “America!” as “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the names of 9/11 victims filled TV screens all over the world — any one of them could’ve ruined U2 had it not seized the moment with just the right mix of humanity and showmanship.

Songs of Innocence was another all-in bet for transcendence, only this time it didn’t work. We’ve all seen U2 lose. Now what?

I eased into my seat at Rogers Arena for the first night of the Innocence + Experience tour an hour before the scheduled show time. I wasn’t far from the floor, which was packed with fans who in some cases had been waiting outside since Monday. Back in my hotel room, I read local news accounts of the pre-show vigil, as well as a story about an activist group called the Canadian Foreskin Awareness Project that planned to protest the Vancouver shows.

“Back in 2011, Bono did a big media tour where he spoke about how wonderful circumcision was in the fight against HIV and the problem is that circumcision is not an effective HIV control measure,” the group’s leader explained. However, when I arrived at the arena I didn’t see any foreskin-related protests, only ticket scalpers.

Vancouver is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in all of North America, but opening a tour here is akin to workshopping a Broadway show in Boston before taking it to Manhattan. Any kinks or rust ought to be worked out by the time U2 hits the more prominent media markets in the U.S.

“Vancouver has been very, very welcoming of us at a time when we’re very fragile,” Bono said in an interview with local radio station Rock 101 that morning. “There’s a level of nausea — you feel ill in the pit of your stomach. It’s a really anxious time. It’s the other end of megalomania. It’s like you’ve got these big ideas and if they fail, you feel like you don’t exist.”

As I walked up to the arena past two TV crews doing stand-ups in front of the massive line for GA seating, I was distracted by a video playing on a television on top of a bright orange car advertising Vancouver’s “Jack” radio station. It was the band’s performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from 1983’s live EP, Under a Blood Red Sky. Larry Mullen Jr. was pounding out a martial beat during the song’s breakdown as Bono implored the audience at Red Rocks to sing “No more!”

The video is the apotheosis of U2’s early iconography — white flags wave, flaming torches flame, Bono’s mullet broods — it’s all very proto–Game of Thrones. The definition of success for that version of U2 couldn’t be clearer — dreams of stadiums and multiplatinum records were still floating in the ether, closer now but still years from being within U2’s reach.

I looked up from my notepad and saw a friendly 25-year-old woman with purple hair standing in front of me. She worked for the Jack station and wondered why so many reporters were covering a rock show in Vancouver. I told her that U2 was launching its world tour tonight.

“Oh that’s why it’s so big!” she said. “I had no idea.” This woman probably learned to talk around the time that Bono discovered irony on the Zoo TV tour, I thought to myself.

“I wouldn’t call myself a big U2 fan because a real fan would get mad at me. But I like them,” she said, explaining that her father started indoctrinating her with classic rock at age 10. She’s also into “Zeppelin, the Stones, Seger,” and other artists that 20 years ago wouldn’t have been lumped in with U2, but now belong to the same dad-rock soup.

Inside Rogers Arena, I was joined in the next seat by Charles R. Cross, the venerable rock journalist best known for writing several books about Nirvana, including the definitive Kurt Cobain bio, Heavier Than Heaven. Cross drove three hours from Seattle to cover the concert for the Seattle Times, though seeing this concert also maintains his streak of seeing every U2 tour back to the one for Boy, which he saw at Seattle’s Astor Park in 1981. “One of the best rock shows I’ve ever seen,” he said.

We chitchatted about the scalpers, who seemed to far outnumber the prospective buyers. On his way into the arena, Cross was offered tickets for $20. Assuming those were for 300-level seats, that’s a markdown of 80 percent.

“When the scalpers are coming all the way to the parking lot, you know it’s a soft ticket,” he said.

U2-Bono-1997AP Images

In case there’s any doubt: U2 remains an incredibly effective arena-rock band. Put them in a cage match with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and I’d still put my money on U2 as the best there ever was.

When U2 followed up its hardest-rocking album, 1983’s War, with the billowy atmosphere porn of 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, critics generally didn’t come around until they heard the songs played live. Something similar (though considerably less dramatic) occurs with the Songs of Innocence material in a live setting. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is still mawkish, but Bono has been doing this long enough to turn any chorus into a sing-along, just by sheer will. An arena-rock singer is part bullfighter and part Pavlovian puppet master. When Bono says “Oh, o-ah-oh!” at you, you instinctively say “Oh, o-ah-oh!” back at him.

The show exploded out of the blocks, with “The Miracle” zipping directly into the most spirited track from Boy, a textbook example in the power of talking about youthful energy versus demonstrating it.

“We’re a band from the north side of Dublin,” Bono said. “This is our first single. This is … ‘Out of Control’!”

After “Out of Control” came “Vertigo” and “I Will Follow,” a solid rock block that proved to be the most riveting part of the set, even without the dazzling LEDs. The lingering effects of Bono’s bike injury — which derailed the album’s promotion last fall, including a residency on The Tonight Show, and has prevented him from playing guitarweren’t readily apparent. At the close of “Vertigo,” Bono did a lumbering, herky-jerky dance reminiscent of Ian Curtis, the late frontman of Joy Division, one of U2’s earliest influences.

It’s difficult to overstate the power of seeing U2 — the most notable legacy band to maintain the same lineup for its entire history — standing together in a tight formation onstage. The history to which Songs of Innocence alludes is expressed most vividly by seeing the band tear through decades-old songs more or less as it always has, without any hired guns subbing for one of the original component parts.

When the band started in on the SOI suite, this power was diluted a bit — Bono wandered off on his own to exorcise some demons during “Iris (Hold Me Close),” bending on one knee in an aggrieved prayer pose. On the screens above, Bono was projected into a larger-than-life figure reaching down to The Edge as he soloed on his guitar.

In the concert’s second half, the best-received new song was “Every Breaking Wave.” Rightly performed as a piano ballad, it inspired a sea of cellphone lights sparking up across the arena. Then U2 played “Bullet the Blue Sky,” a song I’ve never loved, mainly because Rattle and Hum ruined it for me.8 It was odd to see Bono sing about U.S. foreign policy to a bunch of Canadians, though The Edge compensated by putting British Columbia through his amplifiers.9

The encore was better — “City of Blinding Lights” into “Beautiful Day” into “Where the Streets Have No Name,” a trilogy of screamingly epic songs that evoke the sort of extraordinary, larger-than-life existence that’s only possible in the space of a U2 tune. The cynical music critic in me is supposed to scoff, but I wouldn’t even like music if I didn’t buy wholeheartedly into songs like this. I’m reminded of something Taylor Hawkins, the surfer-haired classic-rock true believer in the Foo Fighters, told me: “You go see U2 and you will see your life pass before your eyes.”

Maybe that sounds like a sales pitch. Nevertheless, it’s a sales pitch that belongs uniquely to U2, which as a band never stopped wanting to be the four-headed president of rock music. The encore is U2’s stump speech, which like all stump speeches is imbued with hopeful imagery that you kid yourself into believing in just one more time. U2 promises to tear down walls and touch far-off plains in order to take the audience to a secret, magical place that can’t be found on any maps. If that reads as silly or laughably romantic on paper, it doesn’t change the fact that I was surrounded by strangers suddenly united by their desire to go back to that place.

U2-1983Getty Images

The etymology of “the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world” probably derives from a million overexcited lead singers desperate to bring a million over-relaxed audiences to their feet throughout the ’50s and ’60s. But the phrase reached the masses on the Rolling Stones’ live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, which opens with a montage of tour manager/hype man Sam Cutler’s boastful introductions during the Stones’ 1969 American tour. A decade later, right around when U2 formed, the Clash was dubbed “the only band that matters.” But for the most part, the title has been most associated with U2.

In 2000, U2 retrenched after the doldrums of Pop with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. At the time, Bono talked about “reapplying” for the greatest band job. Even Mick Jagger left it to his underlings to put the Stones on that pedestal. But U2 openly coveted it.

“Greatest” in this context isn’t necessarily an aesthetic judgment — it’s a measure of prominence, reach, and the ability to assemble disparate factions under the same banner. “Greatest” applies only to music with big ideas and bigger emotions, so that it can fill vast spaces. “Greatest” truly is a kind of job, with a bevy of perks and burdens. Most great bands in 2015 will never have the opportunity to be “greatest” — nor would they want it, given how often “greatest” is viewed simply as “overbearing” now.

“It’s a funny thing being an aging rock musician,” Hawkins said. “There’s no way young kids are gonna think you’re hip or relevant forever — and those young hipsters will face the same prospect when they’re 42 and their 8-year-old son thinks they’re the biggest dork on the planet. That’s just the way it is.”

tonightshow_u2_hpLloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Before U2 can once again make a case for being the greatest, it has to get the new songs down.

“I think it’ll take a few shows. It doesn’t come back first off,” Clayton tells me as we sit backstage before the second Vancouver show. “I always think for the shows to settle, it’s about six weeks. Everyone has to settle. All the monitor cues, all the audio cues, all the lighting cues, all the video cues have to find their groove. Once everyone’s found their groove, you’ll find the show is very tight and it’s more flexible. It can go deeper or lighter, whatever you want it to do.”

Tonight, the show starts off slower than it did yesterday. “Out of Control,” which sounded spectacular on Thursday night, is replaced with an SOI track, the wistful “California (There Is No End to Love).” U2 sticks with “I Will Follow” and “Vertigo,” and Bono is back to doing his Ian Curtis dancing, but it feels flatter than before.

When U2 fires up the LEDs and explores its own back pages on the SOI tracks, Bono sticks a little closer to the stage than he did before. You can see the band leaning on each other, closing ranks as it opens up the songs. The groove is in the vicinity but not secured. But U2 knows this is a process. You just have to hang on and dig in.

Toward the end of the proper set, before the band pretends the concert is over and subsequently returns for the encore, U2 plays its first no. 1 hit, “With or Without You.” If you’ll recall, the most powerful part of the song happens between the final recurrence of the chorus and The Edge’s anti-solo during the fade-out. It requires Bono to hit a heart-piercing high note.

Bono can’t quite hit it. “Oooh,” he sings, and his voice cracks. He signals to The Edge to turn his guitar down and tries again. Bono wavers and flails and then cracks. Finally, he waves to the audience and says, “Thank you, good night.” For U2, greatness will have to wait for further on down the road. 

Filed Under: Music, u2, Bono, Larry Mullen Jr, Adam Clayton, The Edge, songs of innocence, Achtung Baby, Pop, rock and roll, WAR, Boy, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden