By Bo Emerson
Caroline Syverson, 14, was eating a sandwich, late Tuesday afternoon, before going to her first U2 concert, with her friend and her stepfather and her stepfather’s girlfriend. “I just want to see if Bono is wearing sunglasses,” she said. “And if he’s going to take them off.”
Just after “Beautiful Day,” four songs into a thunderous, nearly sold-out show at the Georgia Dome, Bono took off his sunglasses. Beads of sweat dotted his face – a vein stood out in his temple. “Thank you all,” he told the audience, “for helping us build this—madness.”
And then he gestured up. Above him, all around him, was the 170-ton, four-pronged stage, looking like a metal claw from the Planet of Giant Robot Crabs.
“Really, we built it to get closer to you,” Bono said.
Joke? Hard to know. Because the massive stage was engineered for stadiums and halls big enough to generate their own weather. How do you get close to 65,000 people at a time?
On the other hand, the sea of standing-room souls with general admission tickets on the floor of the Dome, the select few in the Red Zones (who bid for tickets to get at stage front) and the rest of us, packed to the Dome’s rafters, holding up cell phones like Bic lighters, had a strangely intimate connection to the four performers in the middle. This was due to many things, among them the in-the-round stage design, which lifted speakers and other hardware out of the way, and gave Bono, drummer Larry Mullen Jr., bassist Adam Clayton, and guitarist the Edge walkways and bridges to bring them right into the middle of the crowd.
It was also due to that determination to make a connection that is the hallmark of a U2 concert. While the show – and its seven-story accordionated video screen — was eye-poppingly huge, the emotion behind the performance was all human scale.
U2 moved between the human and the gargantuan through 22 songs (including five encores), kicking off the show with “Breathe” and “Get on Your Boots,” from the new album “No Line on the Horizon.”
The crowd was attentive to the new songs, but arms began punching the air when Bono told them to use their “Southern church voices” and the Edge launched into “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” from 1987’s “Joshua Tree.” Bono brought the band’s volume down, and let the audience sing the first verse.
“We’ve got old songs, we’ve got new songs, we’ve got songs we can barely play,” said Bono after a delicate duo version of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” with the Edge on acoustic guitar. “We’ve got a spaceship,” he added, referring to his futuristic stage. “But it’s not going anywhere without you.”
Liftoff was achieved with “Vertigo,” the Edge’s hammered, chiming strings abetted by the shouted “Hello! Hello!” from the audience. Then with a shift of mood, the disembodied heads of the Brothers U2 nodded from the screen, as sequencers chugged through their techno remix of “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.”
The pacing of the concert made room for small moments and larger gestures. During “Sunday Bloody Sunday” the Hoberman video screen broadcast images of the protests in Iran. With “Walk On” the band invited a host of volunteers to step out on the circular catwalk surrounding the stage, each holding up a paper mask showing the face of jailed Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It was a sweet and somewhat strange gesture.
Just before the first encore Bishop Desmond Tutu’s face looked out from the video screen and spoke to the audience, congratulating them for their help in buying drugs to treat AIDS and malaria in Africa. (U2 concerts have raised millions for those causes.)
It was a political statement used as a reward, rather than a request, and an expected part of a U2 show. Aneal Joseph, 40, of Nashville, who has seen the band 22 times (including Tuesday’s concert), said he appreciated Bono’s efforts. “I admire what he’s doing with his rock and roll status,” he said, “but even if he doesn’t say a word about these issues, I don’t mind.. . . As long as the music sounds good and they put on a good show, I’m happy.”
What Joseph likes about the band is not its politics, but that “they’re intellectually engaging, they put fun in it, and they try a lot of stuff. And they’re all about the fans.”
Tuesday’s show opened with a 45-minute set by Muse, playing ferocious, sometimes operatic, progressive rock with a dark edge. Tween daughters who came with their older rocker dads brightened up when the band played “SuperMassive Black Hole,” a tune used in the vampire movie “Twilight.”
While the pale members of Muse could have fit right in with Robert Pattinson and friends, the hearty souls in U2 were all about sunshine and light, and a starship to take them there.