When you increase elevation you sometimes get vertigo. And so it was Monday night at the Air Canada Centre as U2 unleashed their fall North American Vertigo tour, their first since 2001’s Elevation tour. It was both a spirited and spiritual event, part vaudeville, part awe-inspiring spectacle, and always a rock show. Are U2 the world’s greatest rock & roll band? Probably not, but there haven’t been any better contenders over the last 15 years.
Bono has always walked the fine line between preacher, teacher and huckster. Last time around it was about terrorism and the ills of war, this time around it’s Africa (The ONE campaign), Katrina (with a fine adhoc rendition of Old Man River) religious co-existence, Human Rights, and yes, the ills of war. He can get away with it because it’s so beguiling — wrapped up in terrific music and stilted personal monologues rather than slick, practiced speeches. Or so it all seems. Bono was literally at a loss for words many times, stumbling as he tried to build bridges between causes and songs. He even forgot his own lyrics occasionally. Good thing the sunglasses never came off.
The Edge was on lead guitar, and was never really close to any edge of skill. Clearly he was enjoying himself and kept his guitar tech busy with 18 guitar changes. Larry Mullen on drums was as stoic as ever, venturing out from behind the kit once to play on the catwalk and once to play keyboards (uncomfortably). Adam Clayton on bass stayed close to stage left for the concert, only once walking out around the catwalk in the two and a half hour show. The ACC ravaged the audio performance, as only a venue nicknamed ‘The Hanger’ could.
The fifth member of U2 gave last night’s music an unexpectedly kinetic dimension. Willie Williams, the show designer has worked on most U2 shows, including ZooTV, the POP flop and the heart-shaped intensity of Elevation. His work on Vertigo is nothing short of spellbinding. Much more than the usual eye candy rolled out to shine coloured lights on most performers, his pixilated, fluid colour swashes bring the energy and emotion of the music to the forefront. Always the innovator, he has taken the best aspects of previous tours and reinvented them. The world’s largest projection screen from POP has been sliced into five shower-curtains of pixel baubles that roll up and down like a motorized fishing net. The heart-shaped catwalk from Elevation has been outfitted with running LCDs that allow light pulses to literally chase each other around the perimeter. And the static TV tubes from ZooTV are reborn above the stage in an inspired graphic redesign of the songs Zoo Station and The Fly. You can see some collected audience snaps of the entire Vertigo tour production (North American and European legs) here.
Monday’s opening act was Dashboard Confessional, a young US band that proved once again that second rate material can be forgiven simply by being passionate about what you do. Their thundering basslines, jangly guitars and soaring lead singer amply set the stage for the real deal.
The secret of U2’s continued popularity (50 sold-out shows from now until December 19) is in their continued reinvention. The mulletted rebel rockers of the 1980s transformed into the power-chord epic ballad-writers of the 1990’s, and then into the middle-aged realists of 2000’s Kite and Walk On. Today they stay relevant by being transparently open about their maturity, their causes, and their immodest intentions. With Vertigo (the single) they are trying to reclaim their rock roots, while with Vertigo (the tour) they’re reclaiming their kings of rock status. An elevated aspiration indeed.
Main Set: Vertigo, I Will Follow, The Electric Co., Elevation, Beautiful Day, In a Little While, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, City of Blinding Lights, Miracle Drug, Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own, Love and Peace or Else, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Bullet the Blue Sky, Miss Sarajevo, Pride, Where the Streets Have No Name, One / Ol' Man River
Encores: Zoo Station, The Fly, With or Without You, All Because of You, Fast Cars, Yahweh, 40