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Pop Music Review

All That U2 Can't Leave Behind

An Anaheim tour stop shows how firmly rooted the band's strengths remain amid change.

April 25, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Bono paused during U2's sold-out concert Monday at the Arrowhead Pond to reflect on how much things have changed for the Irish band since its first Southland performance two decades ago at a club in Reseda.

Despite the wildly enthusiastic crowd and the glamorous setting Monday, the singer went on to suggest that maybe things really haven't changed that much after all--a comment that touched on an essential truth about the Irish band.

There is something fundamental about U2 now that reminds you of U2 then, even though the quartet has gone from struggling infancy to one of the best-selling and most acclaimed bands ever in rock, ranking in rock history along such greats as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who.

The key is that U2 continues to be driven by a restless, demanding spirit that doesn't accept either the acclaim or the success as a sign that it no longer needs to look, night after night and album after album, for new ways to touch its audience. It's that unwavering sense of mission that makes its live shows feel like a real, living experience.

It's remarkable, for instance, how much the tone of U2's concert has changed since the tour's opener just a month ago in Florida. The challenge at that time for the band was to reestablish its credibility after the relatively sterile PopMart stadium tour in 1997, one of U2's few career missteps.

Returning indoors for this tour, the group created a rare arena intimacy by employing festival seating, which means there are no chairs on the main floor, and by utilizing ramps that allow Bono to walk freely from the stage to the center of the arena.

The band showcased several songs in Florida from its latest album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," that revive U2's trademark sound after sonic experiments that took the group so far from its guitar-driven anthems that even longtime fans were confused.

Everything worked spectacularly opening night, and reviews ever since have been glowing.

But Monday's show in Anaheim was even more memorable because the Elevation tour now is less about U2 defending its rock crown than U2's message of resilience and hope.

In all the talk about how U2's old sound is back on the new album, the theme of "All That You Can't Leave Behind" has been somewhat overlooked.

There were some incidents in Bono's life--including the suicide of his friend, INXS singer Michael Hutchence--that left him feeling vulnerable in recent years, and several of the songs on the album reflect on questions of mortality.

One of the songs, "In a Little While," even made news recently when Joey Ramone's family played the comforting ballad for the punk pioneer on his hospital death bed.

Bono dedicated the song to the Ramones' singer on Monday. Rather than perform it on the main stage, he and guitarist the Edge walked down to the end of the ramp. Backed just by the Edge's guitar at the beginning, Bono sang, "In a little while/The hurt will hurt no more."

The band also saluted Ramone, who died of lymphoma on April 15 at age 49, during the encore by playing one of the Ramones' rare love songs, "I Remember You."

In all, the band--also featuring Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen on drums--did seven songs from the new album, which is one more than in Florida. The added tune was "Kite," another tale of mortality and an uncertain future that seemed especially touching on this evening.

But U2's music is ultimately a celebration of the human spirit, and there were plenty of songs of optimism and hope in the two-hour set, including "I Will Follow," "Pride (in the Name of Love)" and the closing "Walk On."

What makes the songs all the more powerful is the way U2 contrasts the optimism with the darkness and trials outlined in other songs, including "Bullet the Blue Sky," "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Bad."

The most dramatic contrast between the darkness and the light came when the somber "Bad" and the joyous "Where the Streets Have No Name" were played back to back. To convey the soaring exuberance of the latter, Bono raced around the entire heart-shaped ramp twice at full speed.

Considering that he fell from the same narrow ramp on the opening show in Florida, the move seemed a bit alarming. But Bono held his balance this time--and his daring only added to the sense of electricity in the arena.

It's not often that we find perfection in anything, much less arena rock. But U2's concert certainly approached that rare plateau, even offering a captivating opening set by PJ Harvey.

The superb English singer-songwriter's tales of life's physical and emotional dangers carry an alarm and intensity that have grown more accessible over the years without sacrificing any of their power or insight. She, too, is blessed with the unbending spirit of a genuine artist.

*

* U2, with PJ Harvey, plays today at the Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, 7:30 p.m. Sold out. (714) 704-2500.

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