Arena Plutonium

U2 recharges rock and roll

For U2's Elevation Tour 2001, kicked off last month with two shows at the National Car Rental Center, Willie Williams designed the most exquisite set in the history of arena rock. So artfully spare that there were no obstructed views from any of the seats surrounding the stage, the production depended on light and shadow alone to create a transcendental ambiance for the spiritual songs from the Irish ensemble's All That You Can't Leave Behind. This ain't no disco. This ain't no laser show. Rather the sophisticated display recalled the spectacular mystery of an airport runway at night, an image reminiscent of U2's video for the Grammy Award-winning "Beautiful Day." Like magic lanterns, cutouts in large silver-color lamps close to the stage spackled the band and audience with shimmering white diamonds. The heart-shape catwalk that extended out from the platform lit up like a ring of fire. Modest video panels overhead showed the band members, not in a full-color play-by-play enactment but in live black-and-white portraits evocative of noir romance.

As both director and designer of the show, Williams says the pared-down production sets off "emotional plutonium" -- what Bono and the boys just call rock and roll. "[Rock music] has the ability to communicate in a very powerful way," the Edge said recently. An obvious statement, but as Bono crankily complained in his post-Grammy interviews, one wasted on boy bands and purveyors of soft-porn pop. Having recovered from its own Pop follies of the Nineties, U2 reclaimed the covenant of real meaning with the heartfelt All That. The Elevation tour sticks to the basics, which for U2 means close communion with 19,000 people.

The band is insisting on a general-admission area in the front of the stage at every stop on this tour. The surprise at NCRC was that the floor was loosely packed. Anyone who had bought the cheapest tickets could stand in spitting distance of Bono (literally, as fans learned on opening night when the singer did spit) and the Edge as the rockers prowled the catwalk. If it didn't quite feel like watching four blokes in a pub, it nevertheless was easy to forget the venue was vast.

The houselights were up, exposing the band members fully to the audience in the song "Elevation." Then the lights dimmed for "Beautiful Day." For two and a half hours on a Monday night (the second show), the seasoned musicians conjured the spirit -- and social conscience -- of rock and roll. During "Sunday Bloody Sunday" fans thrust fists in the air as Bono, dressed in black, marched around the runway shouting, "Never more." If U2's own songs weren't enough to stir commitment, the singer peppered his performance with references to Marley, Bowie, and Lennon, breaking into choruses of "Get up Stand Up," "Whole Lotta Love," and "Ruby Tuesday," Corny? Yes. Effective? That too.

Bono read a love note from one audience member to another and dedicated "In a Little While" to his own, pregnant wife. But even a humbled Bono is no Bruce Springsteen when it comes to playing the Everyman, as was clear when the Irishman danced rather awkwardly with a girl from the audience. And if, seemingly floating on the catwalk amid the outstretched hands of his fans, he looked a little godlike, so be it.

Apart from a spew of thank-yous and some eloquent band introductions ("Adam [Clayton] sporting the camouflages and just-back-from-Pakistan look, very much the same as when I first met him at sixteen") Bono let the music speak in a soulful nineteen-song set. Unlike the first night, he did not fall off the stage as he ran about, and his voice also was in fine form. The band, which is modifying the set list each night of the tour, unfortunately played relatively few songs from its new album, offering instead a retrospective that included crowd pleasers such as "New Year's Day." The flashiest moment came during "Mysterious Ways," when boxes containing dancers gyrating behind psychedelic screens popped up through the floor of the stage. More often the effects were organic. When Bono and the Edge stood within kissing distance of each other while performing "Angel of Harlem," it looked less like macho-rock posturing than brotherly love.

Call U2's renewed search for meaning a midlife crisis, but it's more a symptom of a band that's found a way to keep making plainspoken, plaintive rock music important -- for themselves and for others. The all-ages crowd, a typical South Florida mix with the addition of a few Irish natives, was giddy and even teary as they left the show.

U2 performed four encores, including the anthem "With or Without You." When they rather pointedly ended with All That You Can't Leave Behind's "Walk On," the audience refused to take the hint, standing firm and screaming for more even after Bono repeatedly shouted goodnight. Finally the band members, not wanting to douse the good spirits, had no choice but to assemble in a row at the front of the stage, waving and coaxingly calling "goodbye now" and "thank you," like the spent hosts of a party that no one wanted to end.

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