U2 are legendary for their heartfelt connection with concert audiences. But the Irish supergroup took that image to new heights at Saturday's kickoff to its Elevation Tour 2001 at the National Car Rental Center in Sunrise, Florida, outside Miami.
The band raised eyebrows over its decision to allow standing-room floor crowds, and U2 made good use of the intimacy, unveiling a close-knit stage in the top half of a subtly heart-shaped catwalk that allowed Bono and his mates to wander into the center of the arena.
Better yet, the first 300 fans on the floor were locked inside the heart with U2, making it a club-size show for them, while safely splitting up the mob on the floor and striking an intimate balance all around. It was a fresh, simple masterstroke from a rock group that had already pioneered stage design to the point of stadium excess.
The band strode onstage like conquering heroes to launch into "Elevation" with the house lights still on. Guitarist The Edge sported a Miami Dolphins T-shirt, while Bono wore his usual sunglasses and leather jacket, bobbed toward fans reaching towards him in the pit, and ignited the song with cries of "Wooooo!"
It was a galvanizing contrast from bland Irish popsters the Corrs, filling in for opener PJ Harvey, who is expected to miss the first four dates of the tour due to laryngitis.
"Beautiful Day" completed U2's one-two opening punch with celestial touches that still hinted at sampled padding. But the quartet reclaimed its bare-bones chemistry across a two-hour, twenty-two-song show that maintained an inclusive vibe, for the band as well as the full house of 20,000 (which included Lenny Kravitz and Elvis Costello). Throughout the concert, black-and-white video screens above the stage tastefully isolated images of all four members of U2, and Bono hugged his mates in a warm, mid-set introduction.
Most eyes remained fixed on Bono though, especially when the singer stalked the catwalk during a strobe-shot "Until the End of the World" and stepped backward in a face-off with The Edge and fell into the security moat. After a tense moment, Bono crawled back onto the ramp, and kept going.
"I will be with you again," he sang to the surging throng along the ramp in "New Year's Day," removing his shades for added communication, while The Edge traded between accents on electric piano and his chiming guitar. Bono then offered a dedication to his friend -- and late INXS singer -- Michael Hutchence with the R&B-flavored "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," leaning against bassist Adam Clayton and then The Edge to seal the message we should let friends know they're loved.
Fans made sure U2 felt their love, robustly singing along to "Staring at the Sun" (from 1997's less-successful Pop) as well as the 1983 anti-war anthem "Sunday Bloody Sunday," in which Bono took an Irish flag from a fan and injected a chorus of Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved." His increasing penchant for quoting pop classics resurfaced in "Bullet the Blue Sky" with an early snatch of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." Then Bono panned the beam of a hand-held lamp from The Edge's bomb-dropping solo and the upper rows of the arena to his own eerily lit face, and segued from "Bullet"'s closing line "Into the arms of America" to David Bowie's "Young Americans."
By that time, the set had grown into a bit of a greatest-hits romp in song selection and presentation, but tasteful twists also marked the way. Towering shadows of band members were distorted on transparent scrims ringing the inside of the heart for "New York." Bono dragged a foot along the catwalk like a hunchbacked lost soul, briefly considered a brassiere thrown up by a fan, then struck a Statue of Liberty pose in silhouette, blurring the lines between spontaneity and showmanship. The scrims also dropped for "With or Without You," when charts of constellations were projected around the arena.
Bono kept changing pace in other ways, donning a guitar for a run through U2's 1981 debut single "I Will Follow" and plinking on the electric piano in "The Sweetest Thing," grinning at The Edge like they were sharing an in-joke.
There was still no question where Bono's strength truly lies, as he was in hearty voice, immersing himself in the falsetto-tinged "In a Little While" (dedicated to his wife Ali for her just-passed birthday) and rousing fans with exclamations of "Wide awake!" in a transcendent "Bad."
The home stretch was at hand, and U2 was ready with heavy ammunition. Spurred by the rolling momentum of drummer Larry Mullen, "Where the Streets Have No Name" erupted in white lights that flooded the room as Bono raised his hands to the pogo-crazed crowd at the bottom end of the heart, creating the night's most exhilarating visual snapshot. Then, after sprinting a lap and a half around the entire ramp, he dropped into a heap on the upper stage at song's end, only to ride a rising video block that flashed the psychedelic image of a dancer for "Mysterious Ways." The singer had even wilder designs in store for set-closer "The Fly," plowing through the crowd with a security escort to exit the back of the arena floor.
"Thanks for following us around over the years and giving us a great life -- I hope we didn't fuck up," Bono told the crowd when he returned. "How was the first night for you?" The deafening response must have boosted his confidence. When the band took its final bow, the singer piped, "Have we got the job?" -- something he had recently said onstage in Europe, and explained as U2's new application for the position of best band in the world. This time, however, the comment sounded more like a statement than a question.
U2's opening night set list:
Until The End of the World
New Year's Day
Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of
Discotheque/Staring at the Sun
I Will Follow
Sunday Bloody Sunday
The Sweetest Thing
In a Little While
Ground Beneath Her Feet
Where the Streets Have No Name
Bullet the Blue Sky
With or Without You