The New York Times gets it right. Very few inspire. U2 do, and they're a rock band.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., May 17 - High-mindedness may be the toughest thing for a rock band to pull off in concert. Lust, anger, cockiness or humor are easy by comparison. Yet U2, whose "Vertigo" tour made its first local stop on Tuesday night at the Continental Airlines Arena here, is an old hand at equating great big chords with great big ideals. Its concert made virtue seem not just dutiful, but joyful.
U2's methods are both up-to-the-minute and ancient. The band made a quiet entrance - the Edge alone with his guitar, creating sustained tones - and then a spectacular one, as flashing strings of lightbulbs like beaded curtains descended and the full band blasted into "City of Blinding Lights" from its latest album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" (Interscope). Throughout the show, the stage effects were virtual: not physical props, but whizzing lights that suggested a technological cosmos.
Meanwhile, the music reached back to age-old techniques of ritual music. Larry Mullen on drums supplied an unswerving beat and cross-rhythms, while Adam Clayton's pulsating bass lines and the Edge's dive-bombing riffs and shimmering tremolos added up to drones that can fill the largest rooms and still swell from within. The band can stomp like the blues, as it did in "Love and Peace or Else," or march in "Pride" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday," or simply roar in "Vertigo" But it is also playing rock as trance music and catharsis, reaching for ecstasy.
Bono sang about war and peace, faith and family, gesturing skyward or strutting or kneeling. The band tossed lesser-known songs, like "The Electric Co." and "Running to Stand Still," amid the hits. Of course, Bono had plenty to say when he wasn't singing. He dedicated a song to people serving in the military, and he spoke about faith without fundamentalism. "The people of God should not be afraid of the people of science; we need each other," he declared before singing "Miracle Drug." Singing or speaking, he projects as much humility as presumption, one voice within the music's grand spaces. He sang "Hallelujah" as the video screen showed the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the crowd applauded the provision against torture.
For much of the concert, U2 was in anthem mode, until a listener began to long for its earthier side. And then, for encores, that's exactly what U2 supplied, getting funky with songs like "The Fly" and "Mysterious Ways" as Bono put on his "Achtung, Baby" cap.
"This is not show business," Bono declared, but of course it was, and there was no sin in that. It was show business that lived up to all its best intentions.
© New York Times, 2005.