Yet another questionable review

U2’s show at FedEx Field Tueday night was an awkward, sometimes shapeless, frequently thrilling mix of new of and old. Perhaps in deference to the formidable Bono-quaciousness of prior U2 gigs in this town, where the Nobel Prize nominee has effectively become a part-time resident, U2 gave us a lunch-special version of the menu. It was among the shortest shows of the globetrotting U2 360 tour so far, whittling the tally of tunes from the six-month-old, still-not-platinum No Line on the Horizon to five and offering no additional classics in their place.

Martin Locraft 2009 Hey, Bono had a lot of guest-listers to thank: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Eunice Shriver. Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Sen. Pat Leahy, whom Bono dubbed “the John Wayne of D.C.!” Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Nancy Pelosi (reprise).

But despite Bono’s self-deprecating critique and his C-SPAN name-dropping, he and his three lifelong bandmates sounded stellar. For the last 12 years, you’ve never been able to bank that Bono’s ill-cared-for Vox would make the gig. Last night, he was supple and powerful, especially during the first hour. He cracked horribly during the brief “Amazing Grace” that bridged “One” (introduced via video-message by Desmond Tutu!) and the reliable gig-saver, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” But some songs benefit from a vulnerable singer.

Since you didn’t ask, we also got the tour’s most baffling inclusion, “Your Blue Room,” its final verse recited by a cosmonaut aboard the International Space Station. Oh, you can’t hum that one? It’s an ambient interlude from the 1995 album of soundtracks for imaginary movies that U2 and Brian Eno — oh, forget it. Getting a big crowd to sit still for the new stuff is a fight for every band with a large, beloved back catalogue. Adding a sleepy tune from a 14-year-old side project to the mix borders on the perverse.

Despite passing over some warhorses that have hardly missed a show in decades prior to this tour (“Pride,” “Bullet the Blue Sky”) the concert swam on the back of U2’s still-mighty anthems. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” continues to find solace in the search. Adam Clayton’s clear-cutting bassline for “New Year’s Day” sent a jolt through the audience. And “Streets” remains a stadium-rock aria that U2 will, and should, be playing ‘til their plane goes down.

Martin Locraft 2009Hearing tens of thousands of voices joined in some of the most iconic rock songs of the past three decades is a visceral thrill, no question. But is it art?

Well, time was. U2’s prior U.S. stadium roadshows, 1992’s ZOO TV and 1997’s PopMart, were self-aware and satirical in ways no shows of that scale had been. The first was brilliant right out the gate; the second was more of a grower. But both had ideas to sell that were at least as big as their outsized productions.

The 360 Tour is grand pageantry with a groovy soundtrack, but it lacks a governing theme to make it more. U2 shows are preachier now than they ever were in the ’80s, but their ’90s humor is missing, and missed. After three months on the road, they’re still struggling to integrate their new tunes, shuffling them in the set or skipping them outright: Last night, they dropped No Line’s driving title track for the first time. Meanwhile, “Breathe” has the universal embrace that U2 has always aimed for, but stiffs in its role as the show-opener. These guys used to know how to make an entrance, too.

After waiting out the opening trio, the crowd came alive for a buoyant “Mysterious Ways,” as Bono implored us all to “shake your fat ass!” Maybe that’s why U2, now all in their late 40s, are touring beneath that scary, crawly battlebot: It’s slimming!

Actually, the sci-fi stage, which cradles a telescoping, 360-degree video-lattice in its four steel legs like an insect’s egg-sack, seems more suited to the my-boner-is-mightier-than-the-noble-Battlestar-Galactica vibe of opening act Muse. (Or “The Muse,” Bono called them. He’s the singer in the U2s.) When U2 played beneath a giant golden arch in ‘97 to skewer consumer culture, that made sense. So did the heart-shaped stage they built in 2001, when they wanted to reassure us that their decade-long dalliance with irony and pretend-decadence and drum machines was over.

Only it’s not over, not entirely, and thank God. One of last night’s best performances was “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” rearranged for the clubs to put Clayton’s hypnotic bassline up front. The performance got scowling percussionist Larry Mullen Jr. on his feet to orbit the stage’s outer ramps with a bodhran.

Then U2 shifted into an Irianian-themed “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” for which a turban-wearing fan clambered on stage to wave an American flag and share Bono’s mic for one verse — an apparently spontaneous occurrence, and stirring, unless you’ve a heart of stone. Disco to life-and-death in mere seconds. What other band could get away with it? Who else would try?

Later, Bono sent out “One” to anyone who’s lost a loved one to AIDS. And to Nancy Pelosi (again!). And to former President Bush. And to the Congress. Of the United States. Of America.

We get it, Bono: You’ve got phone numbers other pop stars, and most elected officials, don’t. But there oughtta to be a cap on the number of people to whom you can dedicate one song. Even “One.”

If there was, you might have time to play a few more. Like “Bad!” Or “Until the End of the World.” Maybe even something from the criminally underrrated Zooropa album.

Yeah, I know. But you played “Your Blue Room,” so I assume anything is possible. And anyway, isn’t that what you’ve always encouraged us to believe?

 Did you attend the show ? What are your comments ? What did you think ? How do you feel about the short set?