These reviews are inevitably for fans, yet I find myself writing for U2-haters. One friend left a message during the show on Saturday wondering why I was there. Would anyone at the TCF Bank Stadium that night have asked themselves the same question?
U2 hatred is fascinating because it shares the same embarrassment and suspicion many fans feel even as they tip the other way. In my case, doubts go back to something the group also obviously cares about: punk rock. Back when War and the live album Under a Blood Red Sky were making the new wave band a feedback-drone commonplace, punks were divided. For every Replacements satirizing "I Will Follow," there was a Juvenile Truth imitating it. U2 had a couple ideas that were distinctly post-punk: Find new dimensions in minimalism and groove, and sing with abandon about things larger than yourself.
Their trick was increasing the scope and drama of that "larger," so that now, when Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. arrive in a stadium of 58,000 people, they're treated like superheroes. (Maybe that's why they're drawn to Batman- and Spider-Man-related projects.) Fans react to U2 the way the citizens of Metropolis respond to Christopher Reeve's Superman: Can U2 help us? Are they okay? Will they save us? Who will they team up with next?
With great power comes great responsibility. So U2 don't just convey messages (now more numerous and multimedia and international and at times rambling than any '80s fan could have anticipated). They make an industry out of their commitment to repay every fan dollar with the best rock show ever seen. On Saturday, that meant a towering 150-foot space claw with a 360-degree video screen topped by a futurist minaret, at one point shooting light so high into the rain that the white looked like another steeple to the heavens.
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There was also a pre-recorded video message from Commander Mark Kelly on International Space Station, after the band dedicated "Beautiful Day" to his wife, the wounded Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. And did I mention 27-odd songs, mingled with quotations from the Stones, Leonard Cohen, and Talking Heads? All with barely a pause in the downpour, and only the equipment sheltered by umbrellas that popped up out of the stage like robotic helicopter wings?
The thing is, punks rejected the idea that any band should have great power of any kind. So it makes sense that Henry Rollins mocked Bono's famous waving white flag and bubble butt at Red Rocks, in the video for the anti-war song "Sunday Bloody Sunday," because Rollins spent the years of U2's mid-'80s ascendance not having a clue what to make of Black Flag's new mass audience. U2 were so goofily sure of themselves! So serious and pure and obvious and ready, so caught up in the ludicrous idea of making the world a better place through spiritual rock 'n' roll catharses and a few words about the situation in South Africa. And they were so good at it!
Their response to the weather on Saturday was like an illustration of their career. To a sky raining down, U2 opened up their eyes and arms, and said, "Yes." This was partly planning: The band prepared for rain like they had prepared for everything. So the apparently Christmas-tree-like glittering electro-apparatus of the claw was surprisingly waterproof, even as the screen introducing "Sunday Bloody Sunday" with images of a war-torn Middle East was invisible to many in the far upper stands due to sheets of rain. Red lights gave the water in the air a horrific glow, while spotlights turned it to swords or pillars. Larry grabbed some bongos, while his set was being toweled off. Adam took off his shirt.
Nature and the city helped: Where the sky at Red Rocks had in fact been cobalt-blue, Minneapolis's clouds glowed red, the air warm. Lightning accompanied "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," thunder rumbled for "One." The rain stopped while the wind whipped during "Beautiful Day," oddly matching the song's structure, while the Minneapolis Aquatennial Festival offered rocket sounds for Commander Kelly's segment, shooting fireworks two miles to the West.
The band made the most of every opportunity. Having met with Somali activists earlier in the day, Bono brought out singer-rapper K'naan for a nervous but tender funk take on Ben E. King's "Stand By Me." The Edge and Bono did an acoustic "Stuck in a Moment That You Can't Get Out Of" dedicated to Amy Winehouse. And what burned into the memory about "Pride (In the Name of Love)" wasn't Bono mentioning the Peace Corps turning 50, as it did this year, or him saying America is "not just a country but a beautiful idea," which it is, but the way he and U2 went silent altogether after coaxing a lovely a capella coda from the audience, letting the sold-out stadium hear itself sing quietly accompanied by nothing other than the sound of rain drops on clothing.
This was showbiz on the scale of the elemental, and it highlighted the leap of faith involved in U2 fandom. Their style is to appear excessive and woozy but actually be thoughtful and just right: Even their large dose of self-deprecating humor about their self-importance feels pitch perfect. So singing Prince's "Purple Rain," a few bars of which chased Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," fit not just the just city and the weather but the music, giving lift-off to "Where the Streets Have No Name"--a sure-fire arena-worker seemingly about nothing but being U2's lift-off. (I never liked it until it was undeniable live.)
Bono also sang snippets of other "rain" songs--the Beatles' "Rain," Ann Peebles's "I Can't Stand the Rain," and several times Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain," which U2 thankfully left the audience with as an afterthought to the epic junkie weeper "Moment of Surrender." These were all too messily perfect to seem decided-by-committee. Yet they probably were decided upon, in one way or another, just as every Gene Kelly dance move was carefully choreographed and rehearsed. The bigger trick of U2 is they make it seem as natural.
Critic's bias: I'm a huge fan of optimism, not as big a fan of faith.
The crowd: Truly all-ages, pre-teens to elderly.
Overheard in the crowd: "The rain made it great!"
Random notebook dump: Openers Interpol provided both a musical-visual call-back to U2's gothy roots and a balance to all that relentless uplift: Their music said, "It's an ugly day, and you'll never find what you're looking for."
(snippet of Ann Peebles's "I Can't Stand the Rain")
"Pride (In the Name of Love)"
"Miss Sarajevo" (with Bono singing the part performed by the late Luciano Pavarotti, not bad)
"City of Blinding Lights"
(snippet of Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain")
(snippet of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You")
"I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" (remix)
(with snippets of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," "Discotheque," and Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" and "Psycho Killer," with, I swear, a snippet of "Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car" in here somewhere)
"Sunday Bloody Sunday"
(Prince's "Purple Rain" snippet)
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"
(another "Purple Rain" snippet)
"Where the Streets Have No Name"
(another snippet of "Singin' in the Rain")
"Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me"
"With or Without You"
"Moment of Surrender"
"Singin' in the Rain" (begun by Bono, sung by audience)