November 13, 2001

Elevation 2001: My Nose Is Still Bleeding


U2 at Los Angeles' Staples Center, November 12, 2001

Cross-posted from @U2.

Eighty-five dollars for last row upper-deck seats. A two hour drive in traffic from Santa Barbara. Rain, and lots of it. Thirty dollar T-shirts. Ten dollar beer. A cavernous arena, Los Angeles' Staples Center, and the muddiest, mushiest sound mix that I have ever heard at any major concert. Instead of PJ Harvey we got No Doubt, local heroes dwarfed by the venue and the stature of the headliners. U2, one of the most exciting and dynamic live rock bands, delivering one of their most predictable and impotent setlists ever, a jukebox of crowd-pleasing '80s hits and almost no surprises and twists. If U2 are looking to be empathetic to the United States in our time of crisis, they're doing it in an unfortunately unpalatable way, at least to this spoiled California kid.

None of the above gripes would matter if the band delivered. U2 is famous for inducing listeners and fans to suspend disbelief at their shows and swallow a mix of hokey good feeling with snarling and powerful rock music. Tonight my disbelief was suspended for five all-too-brief and ecstatic moments by one of my favorite bands, but the rest of the show made me think the tour has definitely run its course. Sorry folks, this isn't going to be the kind of cookie-cutter press you've read about U2 for the past year. You know the type -- the cut-and-paste performance reviews of blind praise from every daily paper across the country, relieved to happily trumpet the return of a user-friendly U2 that is taking on the mantle of national grief counselor to millions of dazed and confused Americans. Not from me. My heroes barely delivered tonight, and what disappoints about that is the knowledge that it could have been so much better.

U2's 2001 Elevation Tour, on its first and best leg earlier this year in the U.S., was truly a force to be reckoned with. Bootlegs and reviews reveal that multiple-night stands in many American cities had seen our heroes put the setlist in a blender, and with a liberal selection of songs from all over their considerable back catalogue well-rehearsed and ready to go, not one show seemed tired or predictable. Each was always exciting and always better -- in terms of quality, life, and power -- than their most recent album of craftsman-like comfort food, All That You Can't Leave Behind. Tonight, all the nightly wild and glorious re-assertions of U2's premiere status among global rock bands evaporated into a combination of nostalgic and overplayed hits like "Pride," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "New Year's Day" and an especially snail-paced "Sunday Bloody Sunday," with some serious clunkers from the new album, "Stuck in a Moment" and "New York," two fundamentally superficial tunes now clogging our airwaves for no other reason than a tangential connection to the fear and grief engulfing much of our country post-9/11. Gwen Stefani did liven up "What's Going On," but not enough to justify its presence, and while "One" and "Walk On" are the kind of excellent big ballads U2 do effortlessly, attempts to tie them to the attack victims fell short on me, if not the rest of the crowd, who took every opportunity to hoot and holler the way arena crowds do at groovy sentimentality. Even Bono's stage patter about his recent re-evaluation of the U.S. flag didn't go down as well as his and U2's sincere claim to be "honored to be touring the United States of America right now."

In spite of all that, U2 did deliver at some points. Perennial concert workhorses like "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Until the End of the World" (with a smooth segue into "New Year's Day"), brought the house down with powerful authority. "Kite," the best song off the new album, is ready to take its place with those songs as a live favorite, and "Please," itself muted here in an acoustic/vocal arrangement, remains one of U2's best elegies. "Bad" showed snippets of "40" and "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" before it flowed flawlessly into "Where the Streets Have No Name," always excellent live and the only big '80s hit of theirs that I will never tire of. Musically, Edge, Adam and Larry have never been better; tight, assured, and excellent playing informed almost every song, a testament to the admirable fact that they truly love making music. Some lucky babe did get plucked onstage to play "People Get Ready," and as a bass player in my own band, my envy got the better of me. Still, the harsh attrition of many of the tour's previous non-hit high points, namely "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," "In a Little While," and "Gone," was something of a letdown, but not as much as the gaping hole left behind by the omission of both "Mysterious Ways" and my personal favorite U2 tune, "The Fly" -- both in revitalized versions shown regularly earlier in the tour. Without those sexy songs, the show's pacing was relentlessly and almost artificially earnest, something that a fan like me, who grew up on the '90s U2 many fans yawned at, found sorely unmoving.

Maybe I was the only one underwhelmed (hey, I saw an early PopMart show before it got good), but this concert was almost not worth my $85 nosebleeding-seat tickets and the long story of their roundabout Ticketmaster/Wherehouse acquisition, even though at the end of a very long day, it's just a rock and roll show. Maybe the excellence that I know U2 had so recently achieved on this tour made me expect something more.

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