Innocence, Experience and $45 T-Shirts: U2 at the Pepsi Center

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$10 beers, $45 T-shirts and an egregious number of people having their pictures taken in front of an oversized concert poster for the show they were about to see: This was the scene inside the Pepsi Center leading up to U2’s 8 p.m. set in Denver on Saturday night. Nine months ago, U2 released a myopic album – Songs of Innocence – that was forced down the throats of 500 million iTunes users via an infamous automatic-download deal with Apple. That obscenely aggressive and corporate marketing strategy has led to perhaps the biggest backlash against U2 since the Replacements’ 1981 lampooning of U2 in the form of the snarky song “Kids Don’t Follow.” But U2’s previous tour (“U2 360”) was the most financially successful tour any band has ever embarked upon, and the sold-out Pepsi Center was filled on Saturday night with hard-core U2 fans – mostly in their forties – raising their iPhones in approval as history’s signature arena-rock band emerged.

Actually, Bono emerged first, like a boxer or a television evangelist, climbing a small set of stairs to a catwalk as he was showered with politician-esque adoration. In sunglasses and bleached blond hair, the Irish rock star raised both arms to the crowd – a move he would repeat through the evening – and when the gesture was returned, I couldn’t help thinking how truly weird it is that Bono has become the pope of rock and roll.
Indeed, after the frontman crossed the catwalk to meet his three waiting bandmates and the light show kicked in, along with the quixotically adult-contemporary tribute to punk rock “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” things quickly got even more Catholic and egotistic. Bono knelt on the stage asking for fans to “surrender”; he also called on concert-goers to “sing their blessings.” Sure, the band showed its pure musical prowess with two still-powerful 35-year-old post-punk tracks (“The Electric Co.” and “I Will Follow”), but that smidgen of a rock concert was a prelude to a sort of living museum exhibit about Bono’s childhood.

Five of the next seven tracks were from the controversial Songs of Innocence album and featured Bono intermittently walking through a double-sided video screen featuring moving images of his youth. At one point the singer commented, “All this technology is about making every seat feel like a front-row seat.” And that’s true. Because of the diverse setup, there may not have been a bad seat in the house, especially not the one given (during “Mysterious Ways” and “Desire”) to a young woman named Victoria, whom Bono picked out of the crowd to take live video of U2 that was streamed in the arena and online.

The press seats were where center ice is at Avs games, in the first section above the floor, because that gave the best view of the horizontal interactive-video spectacle that featured a small stage at one end and a stereotypical arena-rock stage at the other. But those seats, as any, also provided a good view of the 55-year-old Bono strangely pouring bottled water over the crowd as if dousing it in holy water, kneeling in an emotional heap screaming “Comfort me!” over and over, and repeatedly playing air guitar and air drums in such an awkward manner he looked like both Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator and Phil Hartman as Frankenstein.
I had never seen U2 in concert before. The woman next to me remarked how she saw the quartet at Mile High Stadium in the early ‘90s (“I’m a lot older now; Bono is a lot older now”) and, seeing them again for the first time since, realized they haven’t written any good songs in the twenty-plus years since. Her opinion seems about right, but – despite the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. having the collective stage presence of a man reading Camus in a leather chair – it’s worth a trip to see U2 in concert just to hear the Edge’s skyscraping, singularly exceptional guitar style in person and feel the still-influential and exciting momentum of oldies like “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

It’s just that the technology – and the inherent spectacle – can’t cover up the fact that, while U2's stage show has remained ambitious and gigantic, the group hasn't been writing great music and lyrics for decades. In fact, in the moments when the multimedia extravaganza is so huge and the songs being played are such a broad-stroked morass, the technology and the spectacle — especially when juxtaposed with from-on-high politics — become simply transparent and a little depressing, leaving many concert-goers to pine for a stripped-down rock-and-roll show during which the songs, and a band's performance of those songs, either stand tall on their own or not. As U2 played "Beautiful Day,” I felt a twinge of pain for missing Garage Fest at the hi-dive.

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