The U2 360 tour landed in South Florida Wednesday night and showed the more than 73,000 people at Sun Life Stadium something that many have long suspected. U2 isn't merely a global band, they're a universal one.
You don't achieve that kind of scale just because your set looks like a giant spaceship - although the famous Claw, the gargantuan four-legged, light tower-topped structure that looks like something from a Spielberg wet dream, certainly invited scifi visions. Or because U2 360 has shattered records as the highest grossing, most attended tour in history. Or even with the show's many references to David Bowie's Space Oddity and the yearning Major Tom, plus a videotaped appearance by a real orbiting astronaut.
No, U2 can claim the universal mantle because they superbly and whole-heartedly embody old-fashioned rock values: power, sincerity, ambition, intensity, and an uncanny ability to connect with thousands of people. Everyone in the cellphone-sparkling stadium seemed an ardent member of the Church of Bono. On classic anthems such as I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For and Pride (In The Name of Love), people didn't just take over the chorus for a grinning Bono, they hummed those songs' wordless, soaring melody in ardent response, setting the vast bowl of the stadium buzzing in a way that gave you chills.
The production, whose sheer scale (a 300 ton, 167 foot high enormity requiring four days of set-up time) has generated its own buzz, is an integral part of the 360 show. The four curving legs of the 'Claw' straddled a circular runway, where Bono and the Edge could stalk and strut around the central stage as well as an ecstatic portion of the crowd on the field. The top of the structure came together to support a giant circular video screen that hovered over the band, filled not just with gorgeously shot (from multiple still and moving cameras), footage of the band, but a kaleidoscope of video and animation. A globe-topped spire rose from the top, shooting beams of light into the sky or sprinkling the stadium with light, as if from the world's largest disco ball. During U2's thundering performances of Zooropa and City of Blinding Lights, the circular video screen extended downwards into a giant webbed cone, filled and covered with whirling lights. The effect would have been stunning as computerized special effects - as an actual, physical thing, it was jaw-dropping. Photos can't capture the impact. You had to be there.
But all those giddy effects also served the show's, and U2's, concept of unity. Opening with Even Better Than the Real Thing, the concert was heavy on the band's urgent, longing anthems; I Will Follow, Beautiful Day, Sunday Bloody Sunday, With or Without You. Bono, in his uniform of black shades and leather jacket, was chatty and relaxed, sprinkling in thanks in Spanish, reaching out to this particular crowd. "Irish people are like Latin people who don't know how to dance," he joked, to appreciative roars. "We love Miami, you have a lot of stadiums - Joe Robbie, Pro Player, Sun Life - and we've played all three."
The space theme was played for humor and for a grander sense of universal connection and responsibility. The song Space Oddity was sprinkled throughout the show, most memorably after Bono acknowledged Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who lived through an assassination attempt, then asked the audience to imagine "her husband looking down on us." A grinning, floating Commander Mark Kelly in his spaceship appeared onscreen, intoning "tell my wife I love her very much, she knows" and launching cutouts of the words "Beautiful Day" inside his capsule and sending U2 into that song.
And in asking people to think about human rights, U2 invoked a cause close to South Florida. Bono paid tribute to recently released Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, imprisoned "for the crime of believing in democracy". Then he moved closer to home, asking for "a love song to go out to Cuba - someday Cuba will be free!" and acknowledging Cuban human rights activist Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, calling to the screaming crowd to "let everyone know that he is special to us and we are watching!"
U2 is watching. Besides Bowie's classic, the group sprinkled in snippets of Springsteen's The Promised Land, Talking Heads' Life During Wartime, even Carole King's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, invoking the history and power of rock and roll. The stadium lit up like the Milky Way when Bono acknowledged Clarence Clemons, "a star up there with the stars". In the encore, the audience roared for Bono's magnificent, howling rendition of With or Without You, a soulful acknowledgement of how much we all need each other, in rock and roll and beyond.