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U2 Claws Its Way to the Top at M&T Bank Stadium

June 23, 2011

U2 playing anywhere is a big deal, but in Baltimore it was such a big deal that when the band’s show at M&T Bank Stadium was booked last year, the mayor made the announcement. And considering how few touring acts can still fill a football stadium, especially in Baltimore, Wednesday night felt a bit like a last stand, a chance to see a real stadium rock show in a city that may not have many of them, if any, in its future.

When the U2 360° Tour, already the highest-grossing tour of all time, launched in 2009, it was ostensibly in support of that year’s No Line on Horizon, perhaps the most unmemorable album of the band’s long career. Two years later, even the band’s all but forgotten the album, playing only three songs from it in its two-hour set, including “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” as a dance-mix medley with another under-performing single, 1997′s “Discotheque.” Instead, the emphasis in the 2011 leg of the tour was on the upcoming 20th anniversary of the band’s landmark album Achtung Baby: The set opened with four of the most uptempo radio hits from the album, including “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Mysterious Ways.”

The stage set of the 360° Tour is a bizarre, massive claw-shaped structure looming over a circular array of catwalks and bridges surrounding the stage. It’s very large and expensive, but in effect kind of a halfway point between the multimedia bells and whistles of the band’s ’90s tours and some of the band’s simpler later performing setups, built to keep the focus on the four men onstage during songs and mostly dazzling with visual effects in between. Archbishop Desmond Tutu popped up on the jumbo screen between “Walk On” and “One,” talking about aid to Africa. A recording of astronaut Mark Kelly aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour introduced “Beautiful Day,” dedicating the song to his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a spectacle that was just impossible not to be a little moved by.

That is what U2 ultimately excel at: a slightly off-putting but mostly irresistible mixture of bombast and sentimentality. Only the most hardened Bono hater wouldn’t feel anything when the familiar chiming intro of “Where the Streets Have No Name” rises up, or when the chorus of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” kicks in. Whether or not you think U2 is anywhere near the best band in the world, the scale of what it does, whether in terms of sound or emotion or technical ambition, makes itjustifiably the biggest band in the world.

Bono projected his usual blend of self-aggrandizing charisma and self-deprecating humor and still reached falsetto high notes admirably for a man now in his 50s, and the band’s rhythm section, though not the most versatile, has a knack for crisp, danceable grooves that in some ways fill a stadium better than a frantic hard rock band ever would. But the reason a U2 show is about sound as much as spectacle is the Edge, who still has one of the most inimitable guitar sounds in rock music. Throughout the night, it was always possible to close your eyes, ignore the special effects, and just drink in the echoing tones of his instrument as it kept taking on new textures and subtleties for each song.

Over the course of the night, the big ugly green-and-orange claw became surprisingly beautiful, shooting beams of light into the sky above the stadium during “City of Blinding Lights,” one of the few truly great songs from the band’s last few albums. At the beginning of the last encore, the claw dropped down an illuminated red, circular microphone that Bono sang into for “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” while himself wearing a jacket itself beaming out red light. Then the microphone turned blue as the mood cooled down for the timeless power balladry of “With or Without You.”

After Bono gave one last long, almost purposefully awkward speech, racking his brain for every corporate sponsor or humanitarian cause he could fit in one last plug for, the band chose to close a night full of hits with a recent album track, “Moment of Surrender.” And the somber, midtempo song took on an added poignancy with its dedication to Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, who’d passed away just four days beforehand. Earlier in the night, Bono had already paid tribute to Clemons once, singing a few lines of Springsteen’s “The Promised Land” at the end of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Springsteen is one of the only other remaining live acts who tour on anywhere near the scale of U2, and it’s almost like the band was mourning a member of its family, the increasingly exclusive club of stadium rockers.