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U2 show is now closer in spirit to their earliest club gigs than any shows in a decade writes Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune


'Bono Vox, just two days past his 41st birthday, was in a reflective mood Saturday in the first of four sold-out U2 concerts at the United Center. The Irish quartet has a bond with Chicago unlike any other American city, and it began 20 years ago with the band fresh off its spirited debut album, "Boy."

"At Park West, it was $1 to get in," the singer said of U2's first Chicago show. "Some things have changed."

Indeed, top tickets for the United Center shows were selling for $130 plus service charges, and brokers were commanding hundreds of dollars more. Yet the concert felt closer in spirit to those modest club gigs than any U2 show has in more than a decade. It even included one of the key songs from that first Chicago performance, "I Will Follow," with The Edge's Excalibur-like guitar slicing through the clouds.

Striding onstage with the house lights up as though they were part of the audience rather than the rock stars entrusted with entertaining it, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. were dressed down but revved up from the opening one-two punch of "Elevation" and "Beautiful Day." Gone were the glittering costumes, the 40-foot lemon and the enormous video screen that dominated recent stadium tours. In their place was a four-piece band playing rock 'n' soul on an ingeniously designed stage, with fans rimming a heart-shaped walkway that extended to the middle of the floor. This was an arena redesigned to resemble a club, and the illusion extended to the music, with its grand-scale intimacy.

The simple but effective lighting deepened the connection, and the fans became as much a part of the show as the band, with unison singing that melted a snippet of the retired U2 anthem "40" into the coda of "Bad." During a duet with The Edge on the rarely performed "Zooropa" track, "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)," Bono enlisted a member of the audience to play keyboards. "Keep it simple < no flowery stuff," Bono commanded, and the rookie did exactly that. For "Mysterious Ways," a svelte audience recruit reprised the belly dancer's performance from the 1992 "Zoo TV" tour, prompting Bono to drop in a snippet of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," before she disappeared back into the crowd without soliciting so much as a handshake. (Could these "fans" have been planted in the audience? Let's hope these show-stealing moments were as impromptu as they seemed.)

Not to be outdone, Bono couldn't help hamming it up: jousting with The Edge forehead to forehead during a storming "Until the End of the World," donning a "Midnight Cowboy" Stetson and affecting a Ratso Rizzo limp while visiting the underbelly of "New York," and turning the introductions of his fellow band members into a standup comedy routine.

"I know it's uncool," Bono said of the hokey intros. "That's the point."

Self-deprecating humor aside, the singer remains an undeniably charismatic presence. He may look ridiculous on occasion, as when he lounged atop a video monitor of an undulating dancer during "Mysterious Ways," but the overwhelming impression was of a singer-preacher-carnival barker on a mission to inspire. It doesn't hurt that his band is very good at what it does. "Where the Streets Have No Name," "One" and the relatively recent "Walk On" have an enduring impact because the song is always the point with this band, constructed on an ego-less framework that abhors clutter and fussiness.

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