Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Power and the Glory of U2

You can’t get any bigger than U2.

My housemate Isaiah and I were talking about this as we walked along the upper level of FedEx Field, a 75,000-seat football stadium, gazing upon the thousands of people flooding in below and the phalanx of cars lined up in the distance, all no doubt praying for a parking spot. What other band in history, with the possible exception of the Beatles, can routinely fill stadiums of this size? Whenever U2 embark on a tour, they sell out every show almost without exception, and have now been doing so for the past 20 years.

Before I went to the concert, I knew U2 were hugely popular. But this hadn’t fully dawned on me until Isaiah and I arrived at the stadium and began making our way through the mass of humanity. As we walked toward the escalator to get to our seats in the upper level, I glanced at the faces of passersby. Was it me, or was everyone either smiling or looking happily content? I could feel a sense of joyous anticipation in the crisp September air.

I then began thinking about how I had been listening to nothing but U2 for the past two weeks. Their music has admittedly become something close to therapy for me as of late. New truths and insights come to me through the music and lyrics every time I listen, in a way that can’t be said for any other band.

And then it hit me: The same thing must have happened to at least some of the thousands of people who are here. Mysteriously, the music has spoken to them in the same intensely personal way that it has spoken to me.

We eventually found our seats, and we were pleasantly surprised at the excellent vantage point we had of the stage despite being in the top deck of the stadium. It was a beautiful, clear evening, and the moon and a few stars shone brightly above. As I sat waiting for the show to start, I began to shiver in the cool breeze. At about 7:45, the lights went down and the opening act Muse took the stage. They proceeded to pummel the stadium with an overly-loud set of industrial metal-style dirges, with the singer’s indecipherable vocals getting lost in the wall of noise. I usually like heavy rock as long as the mood is at least somewhat positive and the band has something interesting to say, but Muse’s songs struck me as rather dark and seemed out of place at a U2 concert. I continued to shiver in my seat, fighting off the urge to cover my ears until the end of their set. It was an inauspicious start to the show.

After almost an hour of anxious waiting, the lights went down again, and U2’s Larry Mullen walked onstage to a thunderous roar and began an extended drum intro to “Breathe.” All my negative thoughts about the show were immediately swept away. When bassist Adam Clayton, guitarist The Edge, and singer Bono entered one by one, I along with the rest of the crowd were immediately transfixed. I was stomping my feet and clapping my hands from the outset, along with most of the stadium. Things really started to heat up when the band grooved into the funky classic “Mysterious Ways,” with everyone singing along in one giant chorus. All sense of being cold was now completely gone.

A surge of emotion overtook me by surprise a few songs later, when the band began their timeless gem “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The song, of course, speaks for itself in its universal theme of our eternal longing for (and falling short of) the spirit, but somehow it struck me as especially poignant, and I fought back tears through most of it. It never ceases to amaze me that such an explicitly Christian song strikes such a universal chord. Bono let the crowd sing a large part of it by ourselves.

And so it was that U2 had the entire stadium in the palm of their hand for the next two hours. Through all the astounding visuals of the gargantuan stage known as “The Claw” to the political messages that included a plea for freedom in Iran and a political prisoner in Burma, none of it seemed out of place or over the top. It all seemed so true and so right, a celebration of the human spirit, an opportunity for emotional release, and a cleansing balm for the soul. It was an experience that I will never forget for the rest of my life, one that gave myself and everyone else a tantalizing taste of the eternal, if only for a few, all-too-brief hours.

Is it possible that a rock band can achieve this in one concert? I didn’t really know, and I hadn’t given it much thought, until I went.

Thank you, Lord, for the gift of U2.

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