give me something i can feel
i've wanted to go to a u2 concert since seeing live clips for years. the band really seemed to put themselves into their performances, and however sweeping or trite bono's onstage pronouncements and lyrics might have been, he at least gave the impression of passionately meaning them. i thought i missed my chance when, after dialing and holding on two phone lines for 20 minutes solid, i was informed that tickets to their zoo tv tour were sold out. immediately after that, in my opinion, the band went swiftly downhill and i lost interest.
that is, until i realized that all that you can't leave behind was a pretty darn good album, but their tour was over by the time that sank in. a few years later, they released another album (not as good) and launched a world tour in support of it. but the fact that bono has been on oprah twice, and in news headlines relating to drop the debt, sending AIDS drugs to africa, and ending world hunger, looms larger than his band's new music. it seems like u2 playing on a flatbed truck in the streets of new york city made more of a splash than the single it was filmed to promote. in other words, u2's media presence is bigger than they are.
these were the central themes of their tuesday show at madison square garden, a venue i've never liked. being at the garden is a disorienting experience due to many factors: the sheer size of the venue, the number of people, the volume, the sound slapping back at you from various angles. because of this, entering during "vertigo" felt very apropos. i misjudged the door and performance times and sadly missed patti smith, whom bono later lauded along with tom verlaine's television and other late 70's nyc punk bands. people were constantly coming and going, whether to put beer into their bodies or drain it from them. ushers and security were at every one of the dozens of entrances. having already played the garden for several dates back in may and october, this last night in new york city had the air of being more than just a concert. this was an event, a victory lap, a celebration of the band's longevity, a noble cause, a lifting of the white man's burden.
the stage was designed in a strange not-quite-but sort-of-in-the-round manner. it was built at the end of the floor and not in the center, and still they sold every last ticket in the place including those doomed to look at the back of larry mullen jr.'s head throughout the show. the double-ringed stage (whose edges lit up in various colors) served a purpose of creating a special pit between the rings for the most fervent fans to be at the center of the show along with the band; at times the three mobile (and wireless) members strolled along the catwalk into the crowd. of course bono would actually reach out and even step into the sea of grasping hands. these actions didn't seem to coincide with any particular lyrics or have any meaning other than to give those directly involved a thrill.
the sound was probably the worst i've heard at the garden, and further seemed to distance the experience from the music. but music came through nonetheless, albeit mostly in a "you sing it now" type of way. anyone not familiar with "elevation" must have felt somewhat confused at the long stretch of nothing but two-note distorted squelchy guitar and indecipherable audience-only vocals. but of course u2 aim to please, because they know they wouldn't matter to as many people if they didn't, so they played a lot of songs people did know. bono also pulled his trademark trick of singing other songs over their own (tonight's quotes included "send in the clowns" and "rock the casbah" as well as pieces of other songs of theirs).
anyone too far away could always watch the four individual members close up on the giant video screens (see above). i'm fully in favor of using visuals, especially in concerts of this size, but i prefer them to be somewhat artistic. i've always felt just displaying the show from a fixed perspective increases detachment and heightens the sense of being at a sports event or just watching from home.
spectacle dominated over all. the ceiling sometimes lowered hanging strings of lights which doubled as very pixelated video screens, displaying a variety of colors. during "miss sarajevo" a dispassionate female head rotated in a loop; later, dozens of national flags scrolled by. during "love and peace or else," a stagehand at the back of the outer ring of the stage set up a floor tom and cymbal for bono to add additional drums - that is, if they were even miked (they were about as audible as his periodically strummed guitar). he changed some of the lyrics of "pride (in the name of love)" to include a reference to the assassination of jfk. he pulled a girl onstage to dance with him (which he's been doing off and on at least since live aid), except she bizarrely got a piggyback ride instead. before "sunday bloody sunday" (during which bono announced "this is your song now" twice, as if to distance himself from it), he put on a white headband. the video monitor revealed a seemingly hand-scrawled crescent moon, a star of david, and a crucifix, equating the three. later in the song he repeatedly intoned "jesus, jew, mohammed, it's true". he then pulled the headband over his eyes, crawling across the stage blind to find his mic stand and sing more. this struck me as both pretty powerful and somewhat contrived. a little internet research has unfortunately turned up that not only is the headband prefabricated (it's the logo of hip liberal clothing line coexist), but this entire sequence has been done several times before on this tour.
in the biggest and most interactive gesture of the evening, he asked the audience to light up their cell phones, which looked pretty amazing. the screeen asked the audience to text their full names to a certain number to show support for ending poverty. i figured "why not?" and did it. a few minutes later, my phone rang and i had a message saying "this is bono, thx 4 taking action with the ONE campaign 2 make poverty history. check out www.one.org on the web for more. peace." it was thoughtful of bono's automated web server to text me back so it didn't seem like a totally empty gesture. seriously, as a result of that, thousands will probably go to the website and see what they can do to help.
that sort of thing is great of course, and it's one of bono's saving graces, since he tends to irritate a lot of people. good intentions aside, much of this was extraneous and ultimately distracting from what i think makes up a good show: good music played with conviction and at least somewhat interesting to watch. i know the garden is hard to play, and grand gestures and big lightshows are ways in which bands try to play to the back row. but i felt less a part of the audience and less connected to the music and the people onstage than at any other show i've been to there. to me, u2 have become so large they are unreachable. they are still uniquely talented, and the causes they attach themselves to are worthy. but when people become bigger than life they also somehow seem no longer human, and thus harder to relate to and make people really care.
the title of this post comes from the lyrics to vertigo.