Thursday, April 28, 2005



"Evangelicals have long had ambivalent feelings about U2. Bono has done more to raise awareness and support for the crisis of poverty and AIDS in Africa than almost any other Christian figure. But some conservative Christians busy themselves looking at the speck in his eye. Bono and the rest of the band drink, smoke and swear, causing some to ask questions about the sincerity of their Christian faith.

On April 5, nobody, including the band's most vocal detractors, would have been asking questions. That night, U2's Vertigo tour hit Los Angeles and turned the Staples Center into a cathedral, or a revival tent, if that's your thing. Either way, God was in the house.

First there was the message, highlighted from the beginning with the roaring opener, "Love and Peace or Else." In the '90s, the band used irony to soften the blow of its passion for peace, human rights and an end to poverty. Nothing was soft or ironic about the delivery. From posting the U.N.'s Declaration of Human rights on the video screens to Bono's proclamation that "all people are equal in the eyes of God," U2 didn't hide their zeal for changing the world. But they didn't just shove the message down the audience's throat; they invited us to participate. Bono asked everyone to take out their cell phones and send a text message in support of the One Campaign, an effort to provide funds for American medical professionals to work in African communities. The visual effect of thousands of cell phones, tiny blue screens glowing throughout the dark arena, was dazzling. Thanks to U2, the cell phone has officially replaced the lighter as the luminous icon of choice at rock concerts (Fire marshalls around the world are now sleeping better and buying U2 records). This is a prime example of what U2 does at their best: get people socially involved and make them feel cool at the same time. Given the emergency in Africa that’s often ignored by the media, thank God someone is making noise about it.

The band also made noise about God. Sometimes Bono belied his faith with a subtle gesture that only those “in the family” would catch, like raising his hands and looking upward while singing “All Because of You.” But Bono was mostly loud about his Christianity. He threw in a chorus of “hallelujahs” at the end of “Running to Stand Still,” showed off the crucifix that the pope gave him and quoted Scripture. The band closed with “40,” which takes its lyrics from the 40th Psalm. But if anyone harbored doubts about U2 being a Christian band, “Yahweh” laid them to rest. It’s a praise song. Both its lyrics and melody sound like something straight out of a Vineyard church: Take this city/A city should be shining on a hill/Take this city, if it be Your will/ What no man can own, no man can take/Take this heart and make it break. Bono and thousands in the audience stuck their hands in the air, but it didn’t look like typical rock arena exuberance. It looked like a Charismatic Christian convention.

Then there was the music. I have been to eight U2 concerts over the course of 18 years, and I have never heard them play with more precision and fervor. Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen were tight, Bono hit all the high notes and The Edge was ... well, he was The Edge. The guy can play the blues, rough and metallic, or make his guitar sound like an orchestra, soaring and shimmering. I attended the show with an accomplished guitar player, and he said that mortals shouldn’t be able to make a guitar sound like that. The band favored the audience with old favorites, playing three “deep cuts” from their first album, but they weren’t shy with their new material. A testament to U2’s staying power is that fans are as eager to hear new material live as they are the old stand-bys. And they played with all the zeal of a punk band in their 20s. They tore through “Zoo Station” with such intensity that I thought someone might get hurt. After almost 30 years of playing together, U2 makes many bands half their age seem docile and safe.

But their musicianship, passion and faith aren’t the only things that make U2 different. They connect with their audience in a way that’s rare. Even the stage lent itself to the communal experience. Some ticket holders were selected at random to stand in “the ellipse,” a catwalk-enclosed area in front of the stage. Each band member entered the arena shining a spotlight up into the cheap seats, making those farthest from the stage part of the show. During “Into the Heart,” Bono pulled a small boy from the audience and had him sit on stage for part of the show. The move symbolized the effect U2 has on its audience. The band reaches out, making everyone feel connected to what’s happening onstage.

U2 has turned almost every rock ’n’ roll stereotype on its head. Rock music is supposed to be the province of the young, but these guys are in the their mid-40s. Most pop stars are aloof, but U2 goes out of their way to relate to their audience. At other concerts, the crowd cheers when the lead singer mentions smoking weed or having sex. At this concert, the audience went berserk when Bono mentioned God, human rights and helping the poor. U2 has returned rock ’n’ roll to its gospel roots, making a big, shining noise that inspires and uplifts.

While in line for the show, I met a girl who had never been to a U2 show. I saw her during the concert, and she had tears in her eyes. The cynics might think that’s a bit melodramatic—not believing a rock show can move someone. But when U2 hit their stride, like they did that night in Los Angeles, people leaving glowing, thoroughly entertained yet wanting to change the world. It’s how Church, at its best, makes us feel. As long as U2 keeps doing that, I don’t care if the guys have a beer and drop the F-bomb once in a while.

[Stephen Simpson lives in Pasadena, Calif.]

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