August 9, 2009
What is it that makes a concert stand out as a great one? Is it the musicians' mastery of their instruments? Is it the way the songs were crafted? is it the way the musicians communicate with their audience? Is it seeing the band members pouring their hearts and souls into the performance? Is it the showspectacle unfolding before the eyes of the audience? Or is it, in fact, all of the aforementioned qualities wrapped into one. U2's concerts have always fallen into the category of "spectacular"at least, ever since the days of Zoo TV and the Popmart tours with the enormous screen and video art extravaganza towering in the background, surely as much a highlight of the group's performances as the songs the songs themselves. A U2 concert can be counted on to be in much the same vein as that pioneered by Pink Floyd or, to a lesser extent, the Rolling Stones.
The new tour that U2 undertook to support its newest project, No Line On The Horizon (Interscope, 2009), the U2 360 Tour, takes its show not merely a single step forward but multiple strides beyond it. Theater-in-the-round, of course, is hardly new (Peter Gabriel has done it, but on a lesser scale). What's remarkable about the design of U2's Claw stage is that it resembles a space ship that has descended into the stadium, upon closer inspection appearing as a four-legged monster, an enormous structure with speakers mounted on each side. Practically speaking, the device created real physical proximity between the performers and the crowd, giving an impression that the band is sitting in the lap of the audience.
The band's two scheduled concerts in Zagreb were probably the most eagerly anticipated performances, ever since they were announced. The last time they played somewhere in the Balkans was Thessaloniki, Greece in 1997, when the city was the cultural capitol of Europe. After the twelve-year absence, the expectation and excitement, understandably, were palpable in the audience that packed the stadium.
After the opening few seconds of Bowie's "Space Oddity" (in honor of the recording's 40th anniversary) the whole set just exploded with the rhythms and the riffs of "Breathe" from NLOTH. What's especially noteworthy about U2 is that it manages to satisfy hard-core fans of its past hits yet always starts with new songs: accordingly, its new album dominated the show. After the opening song came additional fresh material, such as "No Line On The Horizon," "Get on Your Boots," and "Magnificent."
A signature of U2 is its ability to make a stadium concert and enormous spectacle an intimate affair. Bristling with energy, unorthodox and daring, Bono, always the ultimate showman, literally commanded his audience of 60,000, holding them in the palm of his hand and singing for each and every one of them. As for the rock show, it was filled with nuggets such as "Elevation," "Until the End of the World," "Vertigo," and "City of Blinding Lights." Performing a variety of songs from its long career, the band simply swung throughout the whole set. It was a treat to see the players so relaxed yet, at the same time, very tight. Edge's virtuoso mastery of the guitar comprised sensitivity and delicacy, excitement and powerall intelligently delivered, most notably on "Until the End of the World." Rarely predictable, he worked at a high level of creativity, requiring the audience's close attention. Extremely disciplined, he brought a variety of colors and flavors to the group, though, all in all, each band member displayed almost equally remarkable talent on their respective instruments.
The most surprising song and arrangement was "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," since the performance was actually the dance remix of the tune. What was not surprising, at least to anyone aware of the versatile and rich history of the band, was that different generations of fans preferred different periods of the group, so songs such as "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Unforgettable Fire" (which hasn't been performed for 20 years) were greeted with delight. On the other hand, there were songs such as "One," "With or Without You," "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)," and the acoustic "Stay (Faraway So, Close)" that were played for listeners of a more romantic inclination.
The concert ended gracefully with "Moment of Surrender," a great uplifting, gospel- like number. At the song's culmination, the band created a dramatic church-like atmosphere at once spiritually uplifting and rhythmically charged. All of this electricity conveyed a significant "wow" factor besides playing a major role in the mighty ovation resonating long after the last note had been played.