U2 was built for the Big Moments. The band’s music is grandiose, earnest, intensely passionate. The in-concert presentation of that music always has been massive in scale, even when the Irish quartet was playing dives in Dublin and small theaters in the States.
As strange as it is to suggest, it was somehow fitting that U2 found itself embroiled in the terrorist attacks in Paris last month. The band was scheduled to perform in the City of Light the day following the massacre at the Bataclan during the Eagles of Death metal show, and the ancillary violence in the surrounding area that, once the dust settled, had claimed the lives of 130 people. The show, to be broadcast on HBO from the AccorHotels Arena a mere few miles from the Bataclan, was postponed, and though U2 was criticized for the cancellation in some quarters, the postponement seemed the prudent choice for all involved.
As a band that has always been able to offer a salve for tragedy, violence and bloodshed through the transformative powers of rock music, U2 had an opportunity to bring some healing – or at least, the temporary illusion of healing – to Paris on Sunday during the first of its rescheduled shows, and to Paris and the rest of the world via the HBO broadcast on Monday evening. For the most part, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. rose to the occasion through the course of a two-hour show filled with songs and statements that seemed eerily prescient.
There were many high points in the show, the highest of them, perhaps, coming when the band invited the Eagles of Death Metal onto the stage to join them for a spirited take on Patti Smith’s timeless paean to hope, “People Have the Power,” and then left the band there to close the show with a tune of its own. This was powerful symbolism, to be sure.
As much as U2 was able to pour its heart into the healing process in Paris, and as much powerful symbolism as songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “One” traded in, there was the feeling that the “Our Best for Paris” show was really two events rolled into one. Initially planned merely as the grand finale of the band’s “Innocence + eXperience” tour, the Paris gig followed the tour’s script, with an emphasis on the material from the band’s moist recent effort, “Songs of Innocence" and the attendant multimedia presentation so skillfully synced to the musicians’ performance. Amid all of this, Bono attempted to inject grand gestures of empathy and compassion relevant to post-Nov. 13 Paris. He was largely successful.
To quibble about the set list for a concert aimed at offering healing seems petty and beside the point, but at the very least, it should be noted that the “Songs of Innocence “ material is, by U2 standards, fairly weak. When that material butted up against older tunes like “Until the End of the World,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “October,” “Bullet the Blue Sky,” “One” and “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the effect suggested a band attempting to sound like U2 on the new material, and actually being U2 on the older stuff.
When the grand accounting is taken, and the book of U2’s greatness is compiled, songs like “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” “Iris (Hold Me Close),” “Song for Someone” and “Raised by Wolves” will not be in it. “One,” “Bad,” “Beautiful Day” and their like, most definitely will be.
That aside, U2 achieved what it set out to with its Paris concert. During its many majestic moments, the band’s show suggested that the spirit that infuses the best rock music – one of defiant optimism, compassion and passion, a liberal and open-minded view of the world, and the stubborn belief that a few chords and a little truth can change the world, one consciousness at a time – was not snuffed out when terrorists stormed the Bataclan.
That spirit still has work to do.