"I'm a man of simple means," Bono told the crowd midway through Saturday night's U2 concert at Qwest Field. "Just get me 70,000 people, 200 articulated lorries, and a spaceship, and I feel good about myself."
This was a performance by a band that has it all and flaunts it all. As gigantic, mechanized, and dazzlingly complex as the center-field, in-the-round stage was, it wasn't big enough for U2. Their ambition reached to Burma, where democratic politician Aung San Suu Kyi, recently released from 15 years of house arrest, addressed the audience. And beyond the earthly realm: In a video message from the International Space Station, Commander Mark Kelly recited part of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" to his wife, Arizona representative Gabby Giffords. "Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows." To her the band dedicated "Beautiful Day."
That kind of ambition is necessary to entertain 66,000 people (actual attendance; maybe Bono was sad) in a football stadium. And yet, amid all the grand sentiments and mega-budget FX, U2 rendered a few intimate moments, all the more poignant in contrast: Bono tossing white roses into the front rows during the opening strains of "Until the End of the World"; he and guitarist the Edge meeting at the center of the circular catwalk for a stripped-down duet of "Stay (Faraway, So Close)"; Bono taking a moment to gush about the weather. "June 4, a date to remember. The whole city looked like it came out of the washing machine and was hung up on the line to dry. A whole new Seattle." Over the course of 130 minutes, U2 made epic the banal, elevated a night out into an unforgettable experience. There were many weeping faces in the crowd.
About the multi-million-dollar, custom-built stage: It started off relatively minimalist, in the round, canopied with a cylindrical video screen and eventually morphed into a eyeball-popping digital cyclone. The screen was made of hundreds of smaller screens which, during "Zooropa," detached and descended from the scaffolded rafters until it enveloped the band and they were playing inside it. Then it retracted; it was unreal. Encircling front-row fans was a catwalk which Bono and the Edge accessed by a pair of bridges that moved pneumatically around the stage's circumference above front-row heads. It's very hard to describe. Whoever designed this stuff deserves an award.
Easy to overlook amidst the choreography and timing is how ferocious U2 is as a band. The Edge's every riff was stratospheric. His opening to "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" is core DNA of modern rock, the source of many a subsequent riff, from "Float On" to "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." Bassist Adam Clayton, who in white pants, shirt, and hair looked like the Heaven's Gate leader guy, was the musical backbone, most noticeable on "City of Blinding Lights." Bono's voice was potent and full. He wielded the mic stand like a bo staff, lunging and flailing with possessed intensity. Together they painted the picture of mastery. Somehow, rather than alienating or anonymous in this most massive of settings, that mastery felt natural and true.
They opened with "Even Better than the Real Thing," mission statement in the hyper-real, big-as-life era of U2.0. They played "Pride" and "Mysterious Ways," with Bono wildly altering the vocal, and "Where the Streets Have No Name." The band teased a handful of oldies and classic-rock hits, like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Psycho Killer," and "Space Oddity." Strangers fistbumped and high fived with strangers, many of whom sported polar fleece and gray hair. During “Moment of Surrender,” the lights went down and Bono asked the crowd to hold aloft their lighted cell phones. Qwest turned into expanse of fireflies, or bobbing stars in a bowl-shaped Milky Way. Such a simple, profound effect only works with a stadium of 66,000 willing fans.
“If there’s one idea that underpins our band, it’s the idea that you can start again,” Bono said mid-set. Was he referring to something specific, a renewal or rebirth or apology recently made? Or the simple, unfailing evolution of the band? Either way it was a life-affirming statement, at which U2 is expert.
In his extracurricular life—when he’s playing bocce with Bill Gates or Walt Disney’s reanimated corpse—Bono refers to himself and his band as "entertainers.” Consider, then, the true role of entertainment. Too often the word is paired with "industry” or “mere,” both of which diminish its significance. Entertainment is important. For 66,000 people, Saturday night was two hours of group transcendence, a communal endeavor that touched on politics, environmentalism, love, death, the whole human experience. This might be the one night of the year when so many will consider so much, together, all at the suggestion of a few songs.