The arena faves return to the sweetest thing

By David Browne
Updated April 02, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Even before U2 commenced the first show of its Elevation Tour 2001, questions both trivial and momentous lingered like a post- St. Patrick’s Day hangover. What would this year’s stage gimmick be? Would the heinous general admission seating on the main floor (a policy that will extend throughout the five month, 48 city world tour) result in chaos? How would the band dress? Could Bono still move like an Irish bucking bronco? Andwith the unpleasant aftertaste of the confused PopMart shows still in our mouths, is there anything left to glean from a U2 concert, one with an outrageous top ticket price of $130?

All such questions were answered swiftly. House lights still on, the band ambled one by one onto a spare stage of guitars and drums; except for Bono, whose black leather jacket couldn’t hide his stockiness, they eschewed the contrived garb of past tours for simple T shirts and jeans, as if they were there to rehearse.

Although much of the crowd had been on its feet for several hours (giving a polite reception to the opening act, the Corrs), the time melted away as U2 dug into ”Elevation,” from last year’s ”All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”

Immediately, the audience sent a tidal wave of energy back at the stage, leaping up and shouting the song’s ”woo hoo!” refrain at the band. Soon enough, Bono had begun trotting back and forth between the stage and the heart shaped runway that extended halfway into the audience, allowing him to practically be in the fans’ laps. He was with them, they were with him, and the effect was as charged and commanding as ever.

If the show was any indication, U2 are very needy these days: Whether it’s our love or their former dominance, they want it back, and every second of the performance burst with that desire. Constantly ingratiating himself, Bono crowd surfed, ran two full laps around the runway, bounded through the audience, crouched down to kiss one woman’s hand, and thanked us ”for following us all these years [and] giving us such a great life.” The only thing he didn’t do was invite us to his hotel suite after the show.

U2 also aimed to please on a musical level by serving up an album spanning two hour smorgasbord. As if their career was flashing before our eyes, Bono introduced ”I Will Follow” as ”our first single” and, à la the ”Rattle and Hum” movie, scoured the arena with a handheld spotlight during ”Bullet the Blue Sky.” For ”The Fly,” an unobtrusive ticker style screen scrolled words like ”believe” and ”lie” — a miniaturized recreation of Zoo TV.

And halfway through ”Sunday Bloody Sunday,” an audience member extended an orange, white, and green Irish flag to Bono. Avoiding a reprise of their white flag hoisting performance of the same song at Red Rocks in 1983, Bono simply picked it up with a rueful smile, cracked something about there being a little bit of white in it, and clutched it to his chest as he sang.

Just like that moment, the concert seesawed between nostalgia and evolution. When the Edge stepped over to a piano, you knew ”New Year’s Day” was next, and it was. Watching U2 play these ageless anthems in a style unchanged from two decades ago was at times unnerving: Are they so desperate to reclaim the ”best band in the world job,” as Bono called it during his Grammy speech, that they’ll risk ossification? (Adhering to the original arrangements might have been wise, though, when they played ”Discotheque”; the concert’s stripped down version merely sounded bony.)

Thankfully, a seamless infusion of newer material, from an acoustic ”The Ground Beneath Her Feet” to an arena rattling rendition of ”Until the End of the World,” kept yanking the show back to the present. During the latter song, Bono slipped on the runway and fell into the audience — another less subtle reminder that the band isn’t quite as youthful as it once was.

To trumpet the release of ”All That You Can’t Leave Behind” last fall, U2 played a few club shows, which seemed a good idea in theory. But at their New York City gig, they were wedged onto a small stage, and looked confined. Ironically, this first Elevation show felt more intimate. U2 work best on a jumbo scale, and its Florida kickoff was a staggering confirmation that this is rock’s greatest arena band, ever.

They still have to answer for those ticket prices and that open floor policy, which runs the risk of body crushing incidents. But U2’s message right now seems to be that without us, they’re nothing. And shows like this make you believe that, on a good night, we still need them too.