U2 in the Round

Glory be! At last, I get to write a blog entry about a show that has absolutely and unequivocally nothing to do with my day job.

The show: U2’s 360 degree tour stop in Oklahoma, which is winding up the 2009 leg (there are only a few more chances to see the show in the US in 2009, according to the U2.com website).

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I’m a musical idiot. I have no pop/rock musical sensibilities other than “I like this,” and “I don’t like that.” So when I say I love U2, it’s with full acknowledgment that they are mainstream, mass-media entertainers who don’t have the independent cred of other, more enlightened (your words, not mine) bands.

And I say to you; I care not. They are kick ass. The 360 tour is unabashedly huge in all ways, with more than 200 trucks and an enormous “spaceship” of a stage, which not only trumpets the tour’s universal ambitions, but also gets the sound system off the ground, giving the band a chance to perform in and among their fans. The design of show was an attempt to create intimacy in the most un-intimate space of all: a football stadium. I’m not sure it achieved this, but again, who cares?

Every element of this show was technically superior, with the exception of the fact that I found the sound muddy from time to time. Lights – amazing, from the 12 spotlights mounted on the “legs” of the spaceship to the mirror ball that rose high above us. Moving walkways? Check. Smoke and fog? Check. Genius videography that made us feel like we were inside a music video (one that just happened to be live)? You got it. Pacing and flow of the songs? Pretty much spot on.

And, oh right, the music. There’s not much to say there; you either love U2 or you tolerate them. Plenty of their newest album, No Line on the Horizon, was featured, and just enough of the old standards to keep the diehards happy. The only song I missed was “In the Name of Love,” but you can’t have it all.

The unique stage design meant that every band member, even Larry the drummer, could walk among the crowd at some point. And the videography meant we could see their fingers framing the chords and beating the rhythms, and watch Bono’s face as he danced and spun around the stage. Bono is a performer. There is no other word for it. If anyone can explain to me why he is so compelling, even when he’s no bigger than a matchstick from my vantage point, I welcome the insight.

I’ll be the first to tell you about the wonders of live performance: sharing air, experiencing community, seeing something that will never be quite like that ever again. You can get that experience in your local black box theater or the largest of symphony halls. But there is something unusual about a crowd of more than 50,000 singing together. And it was magical when Bono, who had been conducting the crowd through “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” gently took the microphone back from us and began segueing into “Stand By Me.” Try it. You’ll see how the two songs can follow each other. Later, mid-set, he strode downstage with a guitar and gave us “Amazing Grace.” I’m pretty sure a collective chill ran through the crowd.

As the show wound toward the end, it became unapologetically activist, and I sensed in the show a healthy appreciation for the irony that, while we rocked out on a cool night in Oklahoma, the themes and tragedies of the songs we sang were real for many around the world.

In truth, the only thing really missing from this show (other than a larger crowd, which I was hoping for) was context. In an article in Rolling Stone, Bono spoke of performing the show in Zagreb, Croatia, where just a few years before, humans had been visiting upon other humans the worst kinds of atrocities. As soon as I read those words, I knew the show, deep in the middle of America, where most of us are lucky enough not to know real fear, would not have the same impact as it did there.

But despite that, I will still hold this concert up as one of the most incredible nights of live entertainment I’ve been lucky enough to experience. From the friendly Kansan ladies behind us to the “human traffic” line outside the gate, the whole evening held magic for me, and the more hours that pass, the more I realize how much this one will stick with me.

PS: The 10+ hours in the car with a good friend brought a great many laughable moments, which I’ll have to discuss later. I’ve got some more thinking to do.

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