U2 makes it a night to remember for 60,000 fans in Norman

U2 fans will be talking about “the claw” for years, and how the Irish band brought a gigantic stage set to Norman that almost made Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium feel like an intimate venue — well, maybe a basketball arena. But even with that imposing, “in the round” superstructure towering over Owen Field, the emphasis Sunday night was on U2’s performance — all the visual flash was in service to the band, which performed a lengthy set spanning 26 years — or, as Bono said early in the set, the length of time since the group’s last stop in Norman.

Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla. Photo by Sarah Phipps

“It took us 26 years to travel one mile,” Bono said, referring to the band’s performance at Lloyd Noble Center in 1983. And throughout the concert, Bono, guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. took huge leaps through U2’s musical history, opening with three songs from this year’s “No Line on the Horizon” — “Breathe,” “Get On Your Boots” and “Magnificent,” before hurdling backward to 1991’s “Mysterious Ways.” While the group was highlighting its new songs whenever possible, U2 kept the crowd of 60,000 fans happy to the point of mass, ecstatic dancing when the group deployed its acknowledged classics such as “Beautiful Day” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

This was an audience ready to play along: toward the end of “Still Haven’t Found,” Bono sang two lines of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” and the stadium finished the first verse and chorus for him. Perhaps because the mood was right and the crowd was primed, U2 added two songs it had not played in previous shows on the tour, 2000’s “In a LIttle While” and the new “Unknown Caller,” a dramatic, half-chanted song partially constructed from computer commands. But after that deep plunge into the new disc, the band came roaring back to familiar territory with two of its most haunting songs, the Biblical melodrama “Until the End of the World” and a mesmerizing version of “The Unforgettable Fire.”

Spotlighting new material can be challenging to a band with a three-decade history, but the new songs from “No Line” intensified in the live setting, particularly a discofied “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and the show’s closer, “Moment of Surrender.” But U2 also brought an uncommon intensity to some older material, especially during a fiery version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that was performed against images from this year’s election protests in Iran. The Edge’s guitar work on “Bloody Sunday” was possibly his most energized of the evening, with Clayton and Mullen barreling through the song’s martial rhythm. And the band closed out the main set by devoting “MLK” and “Walk On” to jailed Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with Amnesty International volunteers walking the massive circular runway carrying masks bearing the imprisoned politician’s face.

While the Black Eyed Peas performed an energetic set of recent hits including “Boom Boom Pow,” “I Gotta Feeling” and “Meet Me Halfway,” the opener was the equivalent to a slick, Auto-Tuned pep rally for U2 — this is a group that has dominated the singles charts for most of 2009, but while the Peas had much of the crowd moving throughout their 45-minute segment, even a seemingly unstoppable dance-pop machine was merely a prologue for the stars of the evening. All in all, U2 played a long main set — 19 songs — and came back to play some of the most popular songs of its career, including “One,” “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You,” with Bono singing into and swinging from a glowing circular microphone that dangled from the center of “the claw.” Sure, it looked like an alien landing, but U2 cleverly used the dimensions of its enormous stage to bring a human focus to the band and its performances.