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Mourning Star 

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On the eve of the release of U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind last fall, rumors "leaked" out from the band's camp that it was a return to form following the poorly received Pop. Phrases like "classic U2" and even "the most beautiful music ever made" made the rounds, and critics for the most part toed the line. But the buzz just wasn't justified by the music.

The most striking thing about the disc, in fact, was its middle-of-the-roadness. Despite the return of frequent producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, any experimental edges had been sanded down, and as a lyricist Bono was at best newly earnest. "Peace on Earth" sounded like a Christmas jingle, and "New York" came across like bad beat poetry. The relatively sprightly first single, "Beautiful Day," was built around a hoary cliche, your average smell-the-roses business. And this hyperpositivity sounded extra lame set against contemporary aggressive alt-rock or more challenging art-rock by former U2 disciples like Radiohead or Coldplay.

But the first leg of the band's tour delivered the goods like no other U2 tour in nearly a decade. Absent were the massive multimedia displays and multitiered stages of the 90s; instead, the band played on a relatively tasteful, spare set with a heart-shaped walkway that extended far into the crowd. Always charismatic, if sometimes clownish, Bono did his best to engage the fans, and the mix of old and new music kept the set hurtling from peak to peak. The two or three new songs they played sounded stilted, but they vanished as soon as they were over.

The recent death of Joey Ramone seemed to catalyze the band at that time, so you can imagine what the attack on the World Trade Center did for more recent performances. Throughout the 80s U2 documented and decried the IRA terrorist bombings; nowadays all the band members are parents, and at least two of them live in New York part-time. Bono has lent his celebrity to a serious and successful cross-network telethon as well as a hideous rap-soul remake of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," also featuring P. Diddy's mumbling and Nelly's jingling platinum bracelets. But if he seems indiscriminate about his contributions, perhaps it's just that he's as desperate as the rest of us to make sense out of the mess we're in.

At the United Center on the 16th--the second night of U2's recent engagement and their seventh show here this year--Bono's voice was shot and he looked tired. He did less running around than on earlier visits, and he had trouble hitting his high notes, conspicuously avoiding several songs that required them. But despite these handicaps U2 were more inspirational than they've ever been. Their broad grandstanding and platitudes have attained a strength few could have predicted.

The plain "Beautiful Day" came across as a snapshot of what existed before September 11--and of a sort of closure we can now only wish for. "See the bird with a leaf in her mouth," Bono sang. "After the flood, all the colors come out." For emphasis, he added, "You need it now!" and the crowd roared. The vaguely comforting "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get out Of" likewise gained instant context: "And if your way should falter / Along the stony pass / It's just a moment / This time will pass."

Always aware of the power of a theatrical moment, Bono ignored all the red-white-and-blue things proffered during "Until the End of the World" and "New Year's Day," waiting until the antiterrorism anthem "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to lean forward, gently lift a big American flag out of the crowd, and bury his face in the limp cloth as he repeated the refrain "wipe your tears away." He implored the crowd to sing it for him as his voice cracked, with emotion or laryngitis or some combination of the two. "Turn this song into a prayer."

Later the band played "New York," arguably the weakest song on the latest record but now an obvious choice. "Religious nuts, political fanatics in the stew / Living happily not like me and you / That's where I lost you, New York." Bono then related an anecdote about growing up in Ireland in constant fear of terrorism, and about how that fear transformed every Catholic into a potential threat. He urged tolerance, then dedicated "One" to Muslims around the world. As the song played, a list of those killed on the four hijacked planes scrolled behind the band. They finished with "Walk On," then trickled off the stage, stopping to talk to fans on the way.

Contrary to what TV news producers might think, tragedy does not need a sound track. Grieving, on the other hand, is often as much a public expression as a private one, and gathered together in the vast United Center the crowd looked like it could use a little premeditated catharsis. U2, in their eagerness to rise to the occasion, make an easy target, but who wouldn't love for Dubya's speeches to be as articulate or soothing? For two hours the band comforted some 15,000 people, instilling in them a sense of collective empathy and hope that transcended the usual momentary bond between artist and audience. If any single talent can warrant worldwide fame and fortune, that's got to be it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Barry Brecheisen.

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