I’ve never been a big U2 fan. I think I bought “The Unforgettable Fire” and never really went back to them. Along the way there have been a number of their songs that I liked a lot, but being U2, it was unnecessary to actually acquire a personal copy. Their music is on the radio and ‘in the air’ enough that actually owning it seems redundant. Plus, when it comes to music I’m always away from the big campfire poking around under the bushes, looking for interesting and odd things.
But U2’s performance on David Letterman last night pretty much blew me away. I don’t even know the song — it’s one from the new album. But several things struck me about the performance:
The band is supernaturally tight, and it only takes 3 of them to generate an arena-sized sound. I know the new album has a lot of Eno’s mutters and burbles from what I read in the Times the other day, but these guys could cut an album in a day, just playing live, and I think it would be just as good.
Bono, when I hear recordings, kind of leaves me cold as a singer. He’s always a bit over the top, in an almost Elton John way, only with a much better singing voice than Elton John. There’s something too ingratiating and eager to please in his delivery. But seeing him do what he does in front of an audience it all makes sense. Put him in front of an audience and he’s several things at once — carnival barker, ridiculous go go dancer, rock and roll singer, and regular bloke just chuffed to be there. As an aside, I’ve seen Coldplay on TV a few times recently, and I realize now that Chris Martin’s hyperactive contortionist shtick he got straight from Bono, but on Martin it looks awkward and self-conscious.
And the audience was as interesting to watch as the band in this context. The first 2 thirds of the song, the collection of random out-of-towners and college students stayed in their seats and enjoyed the show pretty much as though they were watching it on television. But the last third of the song, after Bono got right in their faces and commanded them to stand, they were all on their feet clapping and cheering, almost as loud as the band itself. In the course of five minutes U2 owned the joint like they’d already paid off the mortgage.
The fact that I got this all from watching it on television really says something. After a lifetime (Almost 30 years, dude — their first album was all over college radio when I was in college in 1980) of listening to U2 with an attitude of indifference, I get it now. I still will get more excited on a day to day basis about Omar S and Fennesz and Burial and Melt Banana, but as far as I’m concerned U2 has nothing to prove to me any more. They’re a great band long after most of the performers in their cohort are dead or bitter overweight night watchmen, and perhaps the best live performers currently working. Basically it’s U2, Prince and Bruce Springsteen, and everyone else a distant second.