Last night (December 13, 2005) I saw U2 play in St. Louis at the Kiel, er, Savvis Center. It was the third time I’d seen them, and probably the best.The first time I saw them, they played Busch Stadium in 1992 on the Zoo TV tour. The band was very much in its self-parody phase. The second time I saw them, in 1997 at the Kiel Center, they were promoting their not-so-successful album Pop and winding down that self-parody phase.
I didn’t see them when they toured in support of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. There was no good reason for it; I just didn’t get tickets and go.
Longtime U2 fans complained about the two tours I had seen. Seeing them on the Joshua Tree and earlier tours was like a religious experience, they said.
Compared to the other two I’d seen, this was a stripped-down show. No three semi trailers full of TV screens. No giant lemon descending from the ceiling. They had some screens up, which seemed to be mostly for the benefit of the people behind the stage or up in the nosebleed seats.
Rapper Kanye West opened. I appreciated his use of symphonic instruments in addition to samples. But unfortunately the bass was turned so high I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Bono came out and introduced him personally. I’ve never seen anyone come out and introduce the opening act before. I’ve only ever seen someone acknowledge the opening band one other time before (I’d rather not say who that was, because that would be admitting I saw that band live).
U2’s set opened with “City of Blinding Lights,” accompanied by a light show, which seemed like a good set-opener, and is probably my favorite song on the current album. The set was heavy on songs from the current album, of course, but a number of staples of the band were missing.
No “New Year’s Day.” No “I Will Follow.” No “Even Better than the Real Thing.” No “Desire” or “All I Want is You” or “Angel of Harlem.”
For that matter, there was absolutely nothing from the albums Zooropa, Pop (their experimental stage in the late 1990s), or Rattle and Hum (the height of their commercial success on the coattails of Joshua Tree). Those were good albums, but, admittedly, not up to the standards of most of U2’s catalog. They also didn’t play anything off their outstanding 1980 international debut, Boy, which I missed, but didn’t expect.
But when a band spends a quarter century making music, something inevitably has to be left out or else the band ends up playing for three hours.
Sometimes because of what was left out, but mostly in spite of it, it was an amazing concert. Some nights, Bono’s voice is so weak that either he has to appeal to the crowd to sing over him, or, in extreme cases, The Edge has to sing. This most infamously happened when the band played in Sarajevo, and Edge had to sing “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Not on December 15. Bono’s voice was clear and strong. When they sang “Gloria,” a raw number from way back in 1982, sounded almost like the studio recording.
Here’s the set list as I recall it:
City of Blinding Lights
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – In a Little While
Original of the Species
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
Sunday Bloody Sunday – Rock the Casbah
Bullet the Blue Sky
Miss Sarajevo (from the “Passengers” side project with Brian Eno from the late 1990s)
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Where the Streets Have No Name
Until the End of the World
With or Without You
Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of
The socio-political messages of old, largely missing from the tours of the 1990s, were back. (Like I said, I missed the previous tour–for all I know, this mode of U2 has been back for four years.) Bono urged the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the scrolled on the screen. I know there isn’t a lot of support for it in the United States, certainly not from the political party currently in power, but frankly it read a lot like the American Declaration of Independence. “We must not become a monster in order to defeat a monster,” Bono urged.
While Bono’s political leanings are traditionally far to the left of my own, what he was saying sounded perfectly reasonable to this registered Republican.
And although “We must not become a monster to defeat a monster” may sound like an anti-war stance, he dedicated “Bullet the Blue Sky” to the members of the U.S. military serving overseas.
Bono also urged joining an organization intended to end poverty. I’m not going to blindly join an organization just because some rock star tells me to without knowing something about it, but the guy’s sincere and his intentions are good.
The most important thing, agree or disagree, is that U2’s message made the crowd (or at least two of the people in it) think.
Religious experience? Well, maybe not quite, but awfully close. Unforgettable? Absolutely.
The youngest two band members are both 44, but if last night was any indication, U2’s not showing any signs of slowing down yet.