It’s been three weeks since the terrorist attacks killed 130 in Paris, but the city is still grieving. You feel it everywhere: in the kindness of taxi drivers, the forgiving nods of usually surly waiters, the quick smiles of people you bump into on the street. On Boulevard Voltaire, near the Bataclan music hall, where 89 people were gunned down during an Eagles of Death Metal concert on November 13th, is an ever-growing mountain of flowers, photos, notes and poems scribbled on rain-streaked paper. Still, an edginess remains: Military personnel with machine guns search the bushes outside the Louvre, and your bag is checked and you are patted down before you enter most public spaces. This is a city at war, even if that war is unlike wars the city has seen before. There are no tanks in the streets, but there could be a suicide bomber at any Metro stop, on any bus. Everyone here knows that, and it gives life in the city a kind of vividness and urgency. It is the kind of moment in history that U2 was born to play for.
On Sunday night, the crowd at the AccorHotels Arena, which is along the banks of the Seine river just outside the center of Paris, was polite, smiling, nervous. Before the show, many sipped champagne (which was sold by vendors at the arena) or sat quietly in their seats taking selfies, but the wariness was palpable. After the attack at the Bataclan, U2 had cancelled their shows at the arena, which had been scheduled for the following night. Tonight’s show was, in a real way, haunted by the tragedy of the Bataclan. Before the show, an announcer said, in French and English: “The audio soundtrack for tonight’s show contains explosions, which are part of the show, and are nothing to be concerned about.” For a moment, the arena grew silent. You could imagine people saying to themselves, “Let’s not freak out here. It’s going to be OK.”
And of course it was. When U2 appeared on the stage, they seemed cranked up and overwrought, as if the band members had decided over a beer backstage that they were going to play the gig of their lives tonight. Bono twisted and spun into the opener, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” and when he sang, “I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/Heard a song that made some sense out of the world,” you got the idea that making sense out of the world was going to be the theme of the evening — and indeed it was. With Bono in his black jacket and purple shades and Edge with his black beanie, they were a kind of reassuring presence in this shattered city, war veterans who have been through this before, who understand something about love and brotherhood and terrorism and the fight for freedom. “We are in Paris,” Bono shouted exuberantly after blasting through “Out of Control” and “Vertigo,” as if he could hardly believe it himself. “Tonight, the whole world is in Paris,” he added. “We are all Parisians. … If you love liberty, Paris is your hometown.”
This was the kind of moment that Bono had been born for, dispensing self-help advice mixed with punk anger and Irish wit in a way that makes him the United Nations Special Envoy to the Power of Rock & Roll. And it was hard to see him alone on the runway that led from the stage into the crowd, surrounded by thousands of strangers, and not think of it as an act of courage. Yes, there was tight security at the arena, and yes, there were bag checks and pat-downs, but still, it had only been three weeks since 89 people had been gunned down at a concert just on the other side of town.
The show modulated between grief and anger, reconciliation and rebellion. “Grief is like a wound that never closes,” Bono said at one point. “I was 14 when my mother left me.” Then he talked about how this was the moment he met “his three mates” with whom he went on to form U2. “Rock & roll saved me,” he said, then led the band into into the quietly intimate “Cedarwood Road” before opening into the frothing sense of injustice that animate “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Raised by Wolves.” Hearing these songs, which are animated by the dark history of religious war in Ireland, it’s spooky to realize how well they speak to today’s fight against Islamic fundamentalism. Later, “Bullet the Blue Sky,” which Bono sang through a bullhorn, captured the isolation and estrangement of modern life, especially the modern life of a rock & roll superstar: “Can you see those fighter planes when you are flying in a private plane?” Bono didn’t have an answer, but at least he had the guts to ask the question.
The show reached an emotional peak with “Elevation”, when Bono hauled a black Parisian woman out of crowd and danced with her on the stage while she used an iPhone to film the moment and broadcast it around the world — a technological gesture at global unity and togetherness. Bono’s moves with the woman were just awkward and human enough to feel true (as was her fumbling with the iPhone). Throughout the show, there was perhaps a little too much messaging, a few too many moments when Bono’s between-song patter sounded like he’d sat a little too long on the lap of the late Winnie Mandela: “What do you want? A Europe with its heart open, or a Europe closed to compassion and mercy?” And: “You don’t have to become a monster to defeat a monster.” And: “Love over fear.” And: “Let’s make the future a place we want to visit.”
But by the time the band came back out for an encore, and Bono was up there singing “One” — with the French flag wrapped over his shoulders — nobody in the arena much cared about anything but the fact that we were alive and the world was still standing and there was power and redemption in rock & roll. There had been rumors that the Eagles of Death Metal would join U2 for a final song, but instead Patti Smith jumped onstage in jeans, her grey hair flowing magnificently, for “People Have the Power.” Bono shook the tambourine beside her, looking relieved and joyful, as she sang, “The power to dream, to rule/To wrestle the world from fools.” It was the right note to end the show, but when the lights went up and the crowd filed out of the arena, nobody seemed to be in the mood for rebellion. There was no shouting, no hooting, no “Vive la France” — just a quiet sense they had made it through another night. The city still grieves, but maybe a little less so now.
“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”
“Out of Control”
“I Will Follow”
“Iris (Hold Me Close)”
“Song for Someone”
“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
“Raised by Wolves”
“Until the End of the World”
“Even Better Than the Real Thing”
“Every Breaking Wave”
“Bullet the Blue Sky”
“Where the Streets Have No Name”
“Pride (in the Name of Love)”
“With or Without You”
“City of Blinding Lights”
“People Have the Power” (with Patti Smith)