It was the kind of thing that really takes the wind out of a show. Not when the Edge took a severe tumble off the stage at the very end of U2’s encore at Rogers Arena on Thursday night (May 14), hitting the ground hard and probably launching an animated gif that’s been around the world a thousand times by now.
And it wasn’t the mandatory proselytizing that came from Bono on behalf of his (RED) foundation one song earlier, which might have reminded some eagle-eyed attendees of the placards they passed outside the venue that read “Foreskins aren’t a birth defect”—a reference presumably to his more prepuce-obsessed partners (cough, Bill Gates) in the singer’s war on AIDS in the African continent.
No, the most jarring moment of the night came when, just shy of launching into “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for”, Bono thanked us all for keeping the biggest band on Earth in designer shades and (probably very, very expensive) toques. “Without you we’d still be in a garage in the north side of Dublin,” the vocalist oozed. And that’s when you thought, assuming you’re built a certain way: "Would that be so terrible?”
Really, some things can simply become too big, for too long, and U2 has been jealously protecting its global status for something like four decades now. That’s fine, I suppose, but it bleeds every scintilla of credibility out of the theme underpinning the band’s iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour, which is getting its worldwide send-off with a two-night stand in the city that hosted U2 while it rehearsed this epic nostalgia trip.
As per the 2014 album that landed on your phone without your permission a few months back, Bono and company are taking a mid-life glance backward, something that was clear right off the top when the four-piece mounted an admirably uncluttered stage and burst into “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone”). It was turgid, sluggish, as so many opening numbers at a show this size often are—but that’s okay. The 1-2-3 punch of “Out of Control”, “Vertigo”, and “I Will Follow” that came next was genuinely thrilling, largely because these 50-something men looked and sounded like a pretty fantastic rock band and not the “caring face of global technocracy”, as one of U2’s (and specifically Bono’s) most incisive critics recently put it.
Two of those songs came from the band’s first album, 1980’s Boy. The other, “Vertigo”, was the Steve Lillywhite-produced single from 2004 that made U2 appear to be a viable force again. That’s been the cycle forever, hasn’t it? Just when you think you’re done, U2 comes back with a killer song or two. Most of them were aired during this 24-number set, with a particularly groovy “Mysterious Ways” (including a touch of Talking Heads “Burning Down the House”) giving Bono and the Edge the chance to dance with each other in the time-honoured, faintly sexual fashion mastered by David Bowie and Mick Ronson.
Speaking of Bowie, he showed up a few times—along with Lou Reed, Johnny Rotten, the New York Dolls, Joe Strummer, Patti Smith and more—on a screen that flanked either side of a gantry jutting out and bifurcating the two halves of the Arena. At one point, all four members were aligned in a row on this thing for an acoustic take on “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that was otherwise illustrated with pictures of the victims of a 1974, Dublin car-bombing.
On a somewhat dewier note, this is also where Bono—in the show’s technical and visual highlight—appeared to stroll through a cartoon rendering of “Cedarwood Road”, the street (with a name) that once rang with the clatter and bang of a young band who wanted to sound like Joy Division but couldn’t. Unless I’m mistaken, among the graphics was an image of Gavin Friday, whose own band, the Virgin Prunes, operated like the shadow side of its friends U2, embracing art, decadence and subversion at the same time the teenage Bono was fixing his sights on something a little more messianic.
Forty years later, look who’s still up there. Why? Because—and apologies if it’s becoming indecorous to complain about this kind of thing—U2 has eagerly embraced its role as the anointed musical division of the global corporate hegemony. In a bizarro society where Steve Jobs is made to look indistinguishable from MLK (“Think Different!”), Bono and the boys unite us as powerless consumers entranced by their otherworldly fame. On behalf of the one percent, here is your “rock” music. We’ll even put it on your little mind-control device while you sleep, you lucky peasants. You’re welcome! One love! Now take that grass roots Woody Guthrie shit and shove it up your ass!
That’s the naked lunch, I’m afraid. But still—pretty good show, boys!