On Dec. 8, 1980, an unknown band from Ireland played its first Buffalo show, in front of roughly 20 people inside the long-gone Stage One nightclub.
Twenty-five years and a day later, the same band played to nearly 20,000 people inside a sold-to-capacity HSBC Arena.
Remarkably, though the world around the band has changed radically, in concert U2 remains the same; the four-piece band is a purveyor of passionate, grandiose rock music spurred on by an impossible-to-miss sense of yearning and an undying belief that all of this -- this rock 'n' roll business, this taking to the road with nothing but sweat and a song -- can change the world, one concert at a time.
When Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. played Stage One all those years ago, they performed, according to a number of those in attendance, as if their very lives depended on it.
After their set, the band learned that John Lennon had been murdered. In 2005, U2 is the band most redolent of Lennon's spirit.
Spiritually adventurous and unafraid to embrace the contradictions inherent in the world of rock-as-business, the band, as high-falutin' as this may sound, has gone a long way toward furthering the peaceful agenda Lennon laid out in his transcendent "Imagine."
Opening with "City of Blinding Lights," from the "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" album, U2 wasted no time getting to the heart of the matter.
Edge unleashed his patented spray of notes, a rhythmic wave of sound run through digital reverb and delay pedals, and the U2 engine room -- bassist Clayton and drummer Mullen -- dug into an immense groove, one which they'd maintain throughout the two-hour-plus show.
Bono arrived out of nowhere in the middle of the "ellipse," a circular runway jutting halfway out into the arena.
"What happened to the beauty I had inside of me?" he pondered, and then made it clear that, when he is in his element, there is no frontman more in tune with beauty than he. "Vertigo," a strutting power-chord rocker, followed, and segued into "Elevation," another up-tempo corker, this time from the sublime "All That You Can't Leave Behind" record.
Talk about pacing your set; by the time the band had finished this slamming set of opening tunes, it could've spent the rest of the show reprising Lou Reed's unlistenable "Metal Machine Music," such was the fever pitch raised within the crowd.
Lennon was remembered throughout the night, with snippets of "Help" and "Happy X-mas (War Is Over)" cropping up, in addition to a taste of "Sgt. Pepper" tagged onto the end of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." "Gloria," from the band's sophomore effort, "October," was transcendent and uplifting; "Beautiful Day" convinced us it had been one; "Love and Peace Or Else" indulged U2's industrial strength, the sort of fire that fueled "Achtung, Baby!" On "Miss Sarajevo," Bono let us in on the "opera in his head," and nailed an intense passage with grit and grace.
Part of the challenge U2 has faced in its post-"Joshua Tree" era -- after it became the biggest band in the world and made it clear it intended to stay such -- has been walking the tightrope between mega-celebrity and the credibility that can only come with continued musical exploration.
U2 has fully embraced pop stardom, and continues to insist that it can do so on its own terms.
Friday's show proved the band has succeeded at being both the biggest and the most significant band in the world. Sometimes art and commerce don't have to be mutually exclusive.
U2: "Vertigo" tour
Friday night at HSBC Arena, with opening performance by Institute