"Welcome to the vibe," said a British-accented DJ operating from within a European automobile plopped smack-dab on the floor of the Charlotte Coliseum. "This is the vibe of tonight. It's very mysterious." A tape of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour followed this Woodstock-style pronouncement, helping to set a mood for U2's eventual arrival onstage.
U2's Zoo TV Tour is the Irish band's magical mystery tour for the Nineties: part postmodern happening, part pre-Achtung Baby crowd pleasers and total sensory overload. The staging expresses the band's radicalized reaction to life in the video age. Six more boxy German cars hung over the stage, headlights serving as spotlights. One was decorated with a sunflower; another, a Keith Haring figure. A bank of TV sets and video screens projected a blitzkrieg of words and images.
It became clear U2 did not come to pander. The group opened bravely and a little defiantly with eight consecutive songs from Achtung Baby. Simply seeing U2 onstage again was a charge in this otherwise grim concert season. Bono strode out swaddled in black leather and shades to the corrosive intro of "Zoo Station." He lurched across the lip of the stage with the exaggerated serpentine cool of Jim Morrison by way of Oliver Stone during such numbers as "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and "Mysterious Ways."
For all his occasional swagger, however, Bono was generally restrained, delivering no windy preachments (a la Rattle and Hum) and keeping mum between songs. Guitarist the Edge, bass player Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. maintained a typically low profile, engrossed more in the music than the theater of live performing.
"The Fly" was a brilliant, full-frontal assault on sense and sensibility with screens flashing a dizzying array of verbiage – PANIC, EMERGENCY, BOOM, SEX, DEATH, DRUGS, NO ANSWERS, EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG – while the band ripped into the song's cranky innards with feral relish. In this one cathartic number, U2 realized the potential of all its video hardware and refurbished new music; it was easily the show's pinnacle. For the most part, the live run-throughs of Achtung Baby material were competently duplicative but didn't expand on the studio originals. Thanks to the wonder of technology, "Zoo Station" sounded similar to the record; it would have been more interesting to hear the band develop a less-produced version for the stage. The relatively weak "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" was a momentum stopper, yet "One" was beautifully sung by Bono, and "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World" possessed the shimmering, ethereal throb of classic U2.
It was intriguing to watch U2 (and especially Bono) wrestle with its stature as an object of adulation, aspects of which the band members variously embraced and repelled. A walkway extended from the stage, allowing the musicians to mingle with the audience up close and at eye level. Bono spent a good portion of the evening in the throng and was joined by the rest of the band for a brief but welcome acoustic interlude that included a shambling, folkish "Angel of Harlem."
The band members eventually reassumed their positions onstage for a rattling, humming finale that included four songs from The Joshua Tree and a set-closing "Pride (In the Name of Love)." A verse from "All I Want Is You" led into an electrifying "Bullet the Blue Sky." The spirit was willing but the vocal cords were weak on "Pride," and Bono, gesturing to his throat, let the crowd sing the chorus and its hard-to-hit high notes. For the encore, Bono reappeared in a spangly jacket with a full-length mirror, into which he preened with mock self-absorption.
Quite an enigma, that Bono: He enters in leather and leaves in glitter. The singer strikes a pose one moment, then knocks down the fourth wall between performer and audience the next. Half the show dares the audience to venture to U2's brave new postmodern world; the rest rewards its forbearance with familiar favorites. Certain performances ("The Fly," "Bullet the Blue Sky" and a hair-raising "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For") were as exciting as one could possibly hope for; then again, U2 occasionally sounded underprepared ("By the time we get back here, we'll have rehearsed the endings, all right?" Bono joked after "With or Without You" meandered to an uncertain conclusion).
At its cutting-edge best, U2 remains – to quote a lyric from "Love Is Blindness" – "a dangerous idea that almost makes sense."