Thursday, October 20, 2005

All Bono expects out a of U2 concert these days is to feed the starving, eradicate malaria, guarantee human rights to all and cement his band’s status as rock’s standard bearer for another generation.

Darned if the lead-singer-cum-activist didn’t do the latter Wednesday at the first of two sold-out shows at the MCI Center, and he made more headway on the rest than any rock star has a right to do.

Politics and rock are uneasy bedfellows, to say the least, but U2 tries its best to be both politically engaged and bipartisan, a surreal juggling act in the nation’s capital.

The band even gave repeated props to America for its humanitarian efforts, a virtual no-no in rock circles these days.

It all starts with the music, and if a live act can crank out a juicier quartet of rockin’ selections than U2 did Wednesday to kick off the show, we’d kill to see it. “City of Blinding Lights,” “Vertigo,” “I Will Follow” and “Electric Co.” all rang out before the audience had time to fully appreciate the images on the video screen above the stage featuring all four band mates.

You know the players by now: the Edge, his guitar looking both impossibly heavy and light under his command; Adam Clayton, the strong, silent type whose steady bass lines rarely get a spotlight; and Larry Mullin Jr., the golden-boy drummer whose skills anchor the band’s repertoire.

Even in repose, Bono can’t stop undulating. Patrolling the oblong-shaped catwalk, the erstwhile Paul Hewson turned most musical bridges into a chance to vamp, injecting song snippets and performance-art nuggets into the preening.

Yet his innate sense of cool still bathes him in a rock-star halo.

By the time the band tore through “Electric Co.,” U2’s faithful were all but begging for a ballad.

“That is a great feeling,” Bono muttered, as if the number’s sheer strength caught him off-guard, too.

It took Bono getting on his agitprop high horse for the show to decelerate its frenetic pace, proving the best of humanitarian intentions can put a snag in a fine rock show.

Endlessly pumping up the One Campaign — an effort designed to thwart poverty and disease worldwide — Bono lectured his brethren with so much passion that it depleted his stamina when it came time to sing the U2 song of the same name.

A few other U2 favorites similarly stumbled.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” sounded slightly retooled, but too uncertain of itself to distinguish itself from the recorded version. Even “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the band’s premier anthem, lacked some of its musical vigor; the Edge’s guitar-slinging was more mechanical than menacing.

U2 has long since abandoned the theatricality of its Zooropa spectacles, but the band’s current Vertigo tour doesn’t skimp on the cascading lights and pop-art backdrops.

U2 is still peaking creatively, both in its live show and on disc (or download) as it were for the IPod-sponsored band.

“This band still feels its best work is yet to come,” Bono said midshow, not embarrassed to state the obvious.

The evening wrapped with U2’s patented sign-off, “40.”

“How long… how long… to sing this song,” both the packed arena and Bono alternately sang, neither willing to let the night go just quite yet.

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