April 16, 2005

Vertigo 2005: Whiplash In The Peanut Gallery

Or, 'My Nose Is Still Bleeding, Part II' ... or, 'U2 at San Jose's HP Pavilion, April 9, 2005.' Cross-posted from @U2.

One of the dirty little secrets gnawing on a few of us @U2 staffers is that we don't get to go to as many shows as we'd like. I'd been to one PopMart show (San Diego) and one Elevation gig (LA 1, 3rd leg), and was all ready to have my token Vertigo experience be overwhelming, for good or ill, reprising my role as the bitterly kvetching peanut gallery freak. One constant remained from Elevation: muddy arena acoustics. Sure, U2 succeeded in pulling off their patented hat-trick of making a huge place feel as cozy as a club, but the sound that reached me, six rows from the back, was pretty slushy, though it must have been awesomely crisp and punchy for the first hundred feet or so. Other than that, I don't know if this show was "better" or "worse" than the others I've seen, but I definitely enjoyed this one much more, for all the little superficial reasons that people cite when they choose to pass passionately severe judgment upon necessarily subjective things like art or music or nerve-damagingly tight vinyl pants.

So let's get to the play-by-play: I'm happy to brag that my assertion of last year that the new songs, while not as gripping as they could be on record, would "absolutely slay" live, was right on. "City Of Blinding Lights" is shaping up as an elegant opener -- all that space in between the song's beginning and Bono's first vocals was its own miniature arc of crush and release, and that was even before the confetti hit the ground and the best chorus on the new album took off. After that, the blunt power of "Vertigo" seemed the best way to take it up a notch. The silly lyrics and much-maligned, much-mangled Spanish count-off even worked in the song's favor, with Bono stretching out "catorce" to "caaaatoorceeeeaagggh!!!" Those two songs alone are the best, hardest-hitting one-two opener U2 has offered up since Zoo TV, but we'll get to that later. By contrast, "Elevation" seemed a little castrated, even when it finally did land its big dumb arse on the crowd's collective head, and even bits of "Blackbird" didn't make "Beautiful Day" rise above the show's opening salvos -- almost as if it didn't know where its new place was amid the new material.

One major bonus of being banished to the top tiers of the venue is the ability to take in the whole of Willie Williams' production design, which saw an early peak in the multitude of racing red during "Vertigo" and the urban-nighttime backdrop of "Blinding Lights." When I initially made it to my seat to watch the Kings of Leon shake the shack with their Strokes-meets-Skynyrd sass, and I noticed my fellow @U2 staffers in the claustrophobia of general admission, I almost forgot that being there was good enough. "No", I thought, "I should be down there with a cardboard sign that says 'Me + Bass Guitar = Serious Rafter-Rumbling' or something like that; not those yoyos, jumping around like fanatics in ecstasy!" Thoughts like that tend not to last too long when Willie's swirling, careening red lights begin flashing ever faster and "Vertigo" fries your reptilian brain. "Stop thinking for a second," I had to tell myself, "and get into the show, dammit!"

Even so, there are a few instances where the idea of turning one's noggin off at a rock show is appealing, like when the band lumbers through "Pride" for the trillionth time or tries to pull off "New Year's Day" without segueing from a harder song or when "Streets" doesn't take off like it should or used to, but for the most part, the middle of the set (at this show) won't let you do that, thank God. I mean, the stretch from "Love and Peace" to "Running to Stand Still" is the best balls-to-the-wall politicizing the band has done in years. Taking on the rancid evil of wars past and present shouldn't appeal to great masses of people at once, but to their credit U2 manages to offer such bitter medicine with enough sugar to make anyone take it and like it. "Love and Peace" is weaker than it should be on record, but live, with Bono mercilessly pounding the hell out of an unfortunate floor tom, and then continuing to come back for more as "Sunday Bloody Sunday" shoves its way in, the newer song finally realizes its powerful potential.

Refusing to stop for breath, U2 really piles it on immediately after, sustaining the show's intensity with the old two-sided coin of "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Running to Stand Still." This pair should have shaken anyone who is appalled at the torturing of Iraqi prisoners, as I am, or who is anxious over their friends or relatives serving in the U.S. forces in the Middle East, as I am. Bono's headband act during "Bullet" is heavier than it should be, if you let it get to you -- confronting mindless religious hatred from any faith, and the blind impulse of vengeful violence that so often accompanies it; intoning the ominously appropriate chorus of "The Hands That Built America" while sinking to his knees in the helpless supplication of the tortured; transforming the wrecked junkiedom of Zoo TV's Vietnam vet into the bewildered, creeping unease of the G.I. on active duty in Ramadi during "Stand Still"; coaxing an arena full of party people to cheer wildly at the reading of the 60-year old U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. It's almost an afterthought to realize the Zooropa Sarajevo link-ups have met their 21st-century match.

But hey, when things get too heavy, you can always change the channel. Eric Cartman said that, I believe, but he never got to see Zoo TV. Neither did I, so having "Zoo Station" and "The Fly" erupt in my face (yes, it felt like that even from the back rows), complete with dingy Teutonic overtones, was a real treat. The latter is my favorite U2 song, and one I'd given up for dead after it didn't make it through the Elevation tour and missed the cut for the Best of 1990-2000 CD. Well kids, "The Fly" is back, and it might be the best live version yet, with a raunchy echo-feedback loop that snaps into line once Adam and Larry get ahold of it, and that's before Edge's solo has its way with Bono's rhythm guitar. Few groups of self-taught rock musicians can still bring the blunt heaviness like U2.

A few more quick observations: the return of U2's original workhorse "The Electric Co." was very, very sweet, but "The Ocean" continues to be relatively useless to me, rare or not. And yes, "Sometimes You Can't Make It" was poignant in ways that "Stuck in a Moment" can't touch, and in a similar vein, equally reverent, hopelessly sophomoric things can be said about great tunes like "One" and "Miracle Drug" (which had a great EKG-looking light pulse backdrop) and "Yahweh" and even the predictably cliched finale of "40." I don't look for that first, though. I don't end up at these shows for that oft-cited communal, revelatory feeling that this band and their fans create together, however admirable--I still have that same old residual mild platform-shoe envy of those on stage, but that's my problem, not yours. If you're looking for a powerful, moving rock show, you're gonna get it from this band, and this time it's even more concentrated, well-rehearsed, and tightly wound than during Elevation. Just make sure you don't pay $90 for those pathetically retro T-shirts, and especially that you don't end up trapped next to the most intoxicated guy in the arena. I endure for you folks, you know.

1 comment:

  1. dude, that review is better than anything ive ever written ever. i hope you write professionally. you should if you dont.


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