CHICAGO — Bono was all lighted up Saturday for the opening of U2's North American tour at Chicago's Soldier Field.
In a high-tech show beneath a four-pronged, 90-foot-tall canopy that he referred to as "our spaceship," Bono dressed for the occasion in a jacket outlined in neon and dangled from a glowing, steering wheel-shaped microphone as the band kicked into its encore. As he twirled madly during "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)" and then more lazily during "With or Without You," the 2-hour, 10-minute concert took on a surreal air, with a disco ball reflecting shards of light against the balconies of Soldier Field, a tiny constellation in a galaxy of sound and glitter. Stadium concerts usually tend to feel puffed up and bombastic, but this was downright strange -- and wonderfully so.
On previous tours, U2 had begun to resemble its generation's answer to the Rolling Stones: a band that had started to become predictable, a stadium act rolling out decades-old hits as its songwriting stagnated. This time, the band reconnected to deeper themes in its music and reinforced a recent development in its sound: groove.
There was also the inescapable Godzilla in the room: that much-hyped mega stage, which splits the difference between silly contrivance and weird, sometimes awe-inspiring art object. It literally dwarfed everything, and it reached out to all corners of the stadium, allowing the four ant-sized band members to play to the crowd on all sides. The setting often made for compelling theater, though it wasn't on par with the band's 1992-93 Zoo TV Tour, a multimedia barrage that mirrored the chaos and anxiety harnessed by its 1991 "Achtung Baby" album. Ever since, U2 has been searching for the right mix of spectacle and intimacy, pizazz and poignancy on the big stage, but Zoo TV remains the finest supersized tour mounted by any band in the last two decades.
The centerpiece of this year's stadium model, dubbed the 360 Tour in honor of the circular stage (which lands at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 25), was the Irish quartet's latest hit-and-miss studio album, "No Line on the Horizon"; seven of its songs were performed, out of 23 on the set list. Though there was no salvaging thin material such as the brash but empty "Get on Your Boots" and the convoluted "Unknown Caller," the atmospheric, expansive tone of the title track connected U2 to the spiritual quest of its 1984 album "The Unforgettable Fire."
Hence the "spaceship" concept and the embrace of infinite possibility in the songs, ideas amplified by the video images of Desmond Tutu and Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, who both appeared on a 54-ton cylindrical screen. At times, the stage setup seemed more like a garish, environmentally challenged coverup, as if to distract from the band's recent, less riveting music. But it also dazzled, especially when a spire of lights shot skyward during "City of Blinding Lights."
The band was on its game. Not usually applauded for its sense of swing, U2 has shown an underappreciated affinity for getting down since "Mysterious Ways" belly danced its way into discos during the early '90s. Because bassist Adam Clayton owns the best moments on "No Line on the Horizon," it was only fitting that the rhythm section ruled Saturday. Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. amped up the dance beats, and even Bono's vocals took on a more rhythmic sing-speak cadence. Even a well-tested crowd-pleaser such as "Where the Streets Have No Name" sounded refreshed, with the Edge's metallic-toned guitar taking a ride on the bass-drums rhythm train. An even bigger surprise was the transformation of the otherwise annoyingly trite "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" into a full-on house rave-up -- fitting given Chicago's rich club culture.
The stadium did indeed resemble a big outdoor club during the encore, when the show's outsized ambitions produced a neon-lighted moment that nearly justified the costly enterprise. Bono, in fine voice all night, sang with fervor during "Ultra Violet," crooned like a wounded David Lynch lounge lizard in "With or Without You" and then channeled his inner Otis Redding on the hymn-like closer, "Moment of Surrender."
The lights, the songs, the audience all synced up. Sometimes size matters.