By Jim Stanford on May 26, 2011
The rock band and global consciousness-raising spaceship that is U2 touched down in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, treating Western fans to a deafeningly loud, visually stunning show unlike anything ever seen in Utah.
From profound anthems to more recent hits and gems dusted off and newly inserted into the set list, the band gave a two-hour-plus performance that spanned its career. All of this took place beneath a 360-degree, 164-foot-tall stage with mesmerizing video and lights, nicknamed The Claw.
Still reaching, still searching after more than three decades together, the Irish rockers hit the right note with a song from their last album, No Line on the Horizon. “The sweetest melody is one we haven’t heard,” said Bono, introducing “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.”
The song pretty much summed up our approach to a night spent among 35,000 staid and sober — no beer was sold at the show — Utahans.
Dozens of Jackson Hole fans made the trek to the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium, where the 2002 Olympic torch was dwarfed by the spectacle. The concert was nearly two years in the making, postponed last spring after Bono injured his back. Dreary rain gave way to sunshine and clear skies as fans streamed into the stadium.
Enhancing the otherworldly feel of the setting, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” trailed from the speakers as the band came on stage and opened with “Even Better Than the Real Thing.” The peaks of the Wasatch Front, rosy with alpenglow, were visible over the shoulder of guitarist The Edge, in images repeatedly beamed on the giant screen.
From there the band launched into “I Will Follow,” the first song from its first album, Boy, released in 1980. Throughout the night came anthem after anthem: “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Walk On,” and, during the encore, “One.” Few bands in the world can inspire such singalongs.
There were a handful of new songs, and different twists on others. “I’ll Go Crazy” segued into the dance party of “Discotheque,” with drummer Larry Mullen Jr. roaming the stage while playing a bongo. “Until the End of the World” was well timed and raucous. On Bob Dylan‘s 70th birthday, Bono sang a few verses of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and led the crowd in a happy birthday serenade.
But the highlight of the night were two songs from Rattle and Hum, rarities stripped down and played back to back: “All I Want is You” and “Love Rescue Me,” a tune co-written with Dylan. The Edge brought “All I Want is You” to a rousing climax, and the band joined him in the night’s closest thing to a jam. “Love Rescue Me” was quiet, delicate.
Several songs were perfectly tailored for the mountains. “Elevation,” obviously. Later, as a prelude to “Beautiful Day,” the band invited three girls on stage to read the poem “Utah” by Minnie Hardy. The last stanza:
Mighty mountains, sylvian vales,
Picturesque canyons and rugged trails,
Joy’s your companion, health never fails,
Happiness dwells in Utah.
Utah. “Life Elevated,” read the motto on a sign along I-15. But even on the floor, the majority of the crowd stood like zombies, staring at the video screen.
In a city so dominated by religion, U2 had erected its own temple. “Rejoice!” urged Bono toward the end of the show, yet most of his disciples showed little feeling. It was date night at the stadium, with couples uniformly dressed in black (because it’s a city) and red (the Utes’ color). I couldn’t help but wonder why we hadn’t gone instead to Mile High Stadium in Denver a few nights earlier.
These hymns struck a deep chord for someone who on a family vacation to Ireland in 1985, as a boy sitting in his uncle’s tractor, used to listen to “Bad” on cassette, and who began a journey on the Emerald Isle in 2002 as the band returned to its roots with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Memories flowed when images of the musicians as young men from The Joshua Tree flashed on the screen during the always-stirring “Where the Streets Have No Name.” For this fan from Wyoming, the five-hour trek to Salt Lake was a pilgrimage.
As impressive as the video and lights were, the massive production seemed a little much for the times. The columns of speakers were too loud, made worse by a metal ramp that covered the grass field and reflected the sound, making it a bit tinny. Three dozen semi-trucks, needed to haul the stage, were parked outside the stadium. For the cost of moving all this around, one could forgive the debt of a small African nation.
That’s what made “All I Want Is You” and “Love Rescue Me” so beautiful in their simplicity. Just Bono singing and The Edge strumming his guitar. Perhaps if U2 is to one-up this tour, it will figure out that sometimes less is more.
• Set list: Rice-Eccles Stadium, 5-24-11