San Diego – You know it was a powerful show if every single seat in the arena is still occupied by fans singing at the top of their lungs even after the band is done and the house lights go up.
That was the scene Monday at the San Diego Sports Arena, where U2 kicked off their Vertigo Tour with a two-hour celebration of the new and the old and a few favorites in between, including a grand finale of “40” that felt more like the end of an Easter service than a rock concert the night after.
“We haven’t played this one since 1983,” Bono said as guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. subtly started the War anthem, which instantly turned into a sing-along. As the tune came to an end, each member strolled off the stage one at a time, eventually leaving the sold-out crowd to continue the chorus of “how long to sing this song” a cappella. It was a fitting ending to a night clearly about unity.
After an opening set from Kings of Leon, whose sexy Southern rock had the beer drinkers raising their plastic cups, U2 took the stage in front of what looked like beaded curtains, but actually served as projection screens. With “City of Blinding Lights” as the soundtrack, the beads reflected white light across the arena, as colorful mirrored confetti fell from the ceiling.
“This is San Diego; you don’t need any lessons in Spanish,” Bono said next, before counting “Uno, dos, tres, catorce,” (translation: “one, two, three, fourteen”), the intro to the world tour’s title track, “Vertigo.” Later, after working in some lines from “Stories for Boys,” Bono gave the audience another shout-out, changing the lyric “I’m at a place called Vertigo” to “San Diego.” (Good luck in East Rutherford.) During the tune, and for much of what was to follow, Bono strutted (almost dancing, but still walking) from one side of the stage to the other, to the back to greet fans behind them and then all around an egg-shaped catwalk that circled a small group of fans in the front rows.
Above the stage, a monitor just as wide as the platform was split into four screens, each one televising a different member of the band, often in black and white or other retro hues.
“I want to go back to where we started,” Bono declared, boldly leading the band through three tunes from 1980’s Boy just a few songs into the show.
A pair of “Days” (when you have nearly a dozen albums, you can use the same words over), “Beautiful Day” and “New Year’s Day,” followed, giving even the diehard fans a needed adrenaline boost.
U2 then jumped back into last year’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, beginning with “Miracle Drug” and perfectly segueing, musically and emotionally, into “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” Bono’s elegy to his late father, which he sang at his funeral. “My father Bob would love to say ‘in show business,’ ” Bono shared as he started to sing the tune. Later, as he seemingly drifted off the stage and into his own world, the singer took off his signature sunglasses, wiped away a tear and continued singing.
Next, the band changed gears for another new tune, “Love and Peace or Else.” At the start, Mullen made his way with a few drums to the front of the catwalk, but by the end he was back on his set while Bono pounded away in tandem, looking like a soldier leading his troops as he stomped his feet and raised his drumsticks.
Coming off what was easily the highlight so far, Bono, now in a white headband holding back his long hair, wisely marched into patriotic classics “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky,” during which he pulled his headband over his eyes, kneeled for a symbolic moment and then added some lines from “The Hands That Built America.”
Rounding out the set, the band played four tunes from different albums – “Running to Stand Still,” “Zoo Station,” “The Fly” and “Elevation” – which, put together, made for a perfect playground for the musicians to play, especially the Edge, who occasionally switched guitars during songs and also played a little piano. For “Elevation,” U2 brought the upbeat anthem to a crawl during the bridge and then exploded into the final verse, even getting a little mixed up in the pacing. “It’s OK to screw up, right?” Bono asked. “We’re a close-knit group.”
For the encore, U2 returned with the one-two punch of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Where the Streets Have No Name,” during which Bono stepped up his preaching of unity. “Martin Luther King’s dream was bigger than America,” he sermonized during the former, while the crowd repeated the “uh oh oh oh” part of the tune. “It was big enough to fit the whole world. It was a dream where everyone was equal. Asian. European. African. Let’s sing it for Africa!”
Bono continued on his tribute to Africa during the latter, dedicating the tune to Nelson Mandela while different African flags scrolled on the projection beads behind him.
While the band finished out the tune and started into the next, Bono asked the audience to participate in the band’s One campaign “to show there’s equality in Africa and America.” (An address to send a text message to join was shown on the big screen later.) “We are more extraordinary and more powerful when we act as one,” he said, just as the Edge kicked into the infectious opening to “One.” “One life/ But we’re not the same,” Bono sang. “We get to/ Carry each other/ Carry each other.” It wasn’t the final song, but it did seem the final message.
The Vertigo Tour continues Wednesday, again at the San Diego Sports Arena, before heading up the coast of California.