I’ve seen U2 perform live four times now, and I’ve seen the film “Rattle and Hum” almost ten times on the big screen, along with countless DVD viewings, so I know what they’re capable of.

Thus, I had high hopes about what would take place in KeyArena last night for the “Vertigo” tour. And when the band took the stage with a searing, blistering, blow-out-the-back-wall version of “Love and Peace Or Else,” I was once again swept up on waves of energy and light. It was a euphoric experience as they charged right on into “Vertigo” and a long section of songs from “Boy” (including “Cry”!!) They were on fire. The new stage was an exhilarating circus of light and confetti and hanging curtains of digital “beads” that provided transparent animated banners.

It’s curtains for Bono and the boys. But only literally. Posted by Hello

Highlights included a deeply moving rendition of “Miracle Drug,” in which Bono declared, “It’s amazing what God can accomplish through science and scientists,” and dedicated the song to a “very sick” woman who was there watching the show.

Before that, those opening numbers were a ferocious marathon, charging through “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (as bold and strong as ever) and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” “Running to Stand Still” was extraordinary, and so was the new classic “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” (during which Bono removed the sunglasses and sang with riveting emotion and operatic strength. “City of Blinding Lights” and “Beautiful Day” were an exhilarating combination, complete with a shower of glittering confetti. Bono did the usual routine of selecting a woman from the crowd, but instead of dancing with her, he took her on a leisurely stroll around the stage’s massive elliptical platform and let her sit next to Larry Mullen Jr. Later, he invited another one up, and gave her a piggy-back ride.

Stage of blinding lights. Posted by Hello

But something began “dismantling” the show’s coherence and flow when the band got to “Pride.”

First of all, things were beginning to sound too familiar – -many songs in the second half of the show (“New Year’s Day”) were played without inventive twists or much visual imagination. The high-tech wizardry began to suffer from technical difficulties. (Several of those digital bead curtains malfunctioned, with strings of lights refusing to cooperate the way they should.) At one point, Bono was so distracted and frustrated with a guitar that wouldn’t work properly that, in the awkward process of changing guitars, he botched the lyrics to “One,” repeated the same verse twice, got lost, and barely pulled the song together in the end. One of the major theatrical flourishes — a presentation of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights — malfunctioned, so that the voices reading the articles came on late and then cut out early. It was an distracting stumble.

Four guys and the truth. Posted by Hello

From that point on, while the crowd was still riotously happy, there was something missing, some kind of spiritual flow and coherence that usually makes a U2 show a rising adrenalin rush that arrives at a sort of musical epiphany. It turned instead into a hit parade, with some very bumpy transitions and songs being played in arrangements almost identical to the previous tours. With so many exciting new songs in their repertoire from the past few albums, the band opted instead to dwell on timeworn hits like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “Mysterious Ways,” and “The Fly.” The first encore, “Zoo Station,” has never been one of their better songs, but it took up a great deal of time that could have been used for something fresh and engaging like “Crumbs from Your Table” or “When I Look at the World” or “A Man and a Woman” (still my favorite track on the new album).

By the time the band was scheduled to depart before their return for the second round of encores, the show was off the rails and they were just working their way through the songs. Bono, unintentionally echoed the Sam Phillips encore routine of questioning the reason behind the stage-departure-and-return tradition. Deciding he didn’t want to do that charade a second time, he had to talk Larry out of leaving the stage. It was the right decision–he probably e realized that they needed to maintain what momentum they had if they were going to play more songs and keep the crowd’s enthusiasm up. So they launched into “All Because of You,” “Yaweh,” and a bigger, more anthemic version of “40” than we’ve heard before. It was a satisfying conclusion, but not anywhere near the celebratory glory of the Elevation tour.

“You ask me to enter, then you make me crawl…” Posted by Hello

I walked away glad to have been there, but also increasingly thankful for my unforgettable front-row experience at the Elevation tour in 2001. Even a sub-par U2 show is better than any other show going right now, as far as I’m concerned, but I’ve gotta say, for the first time I was wondering if there were cracks showing in the band’s superhuman performance abilities, if age was finally catching up to them. (Bono ran around a lot less this time.) It’s bound to happen.

One question to anyone else who was there: The acoustics at KeyArena are terrible, so it was often hard to understand what Bono was saying between songs. But I’m almost certain that, early in the show, he made some comment about the band heading back into the studio in a couple of weeks. Did anybody else hear that? Or did I just misunderstand him in the echoes and the roar of the crowd? [UPDATE: This question is answered in the comments attached to this thread.]

Set List:
Love And Peace Or Else
Cry/Electric Co.
An Cat Dubh/Into the Heart
City Of Blinding Lights
Beautiful Day
Miracle Drug
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
New Year’s Day
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Bullet The Blue Sky
Running To Stand Still
Where The Streets Have No Name

Zoo Station
The Fly
Mysterious Ways
All Because Of You

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