When U2 began its “Elevation” tour in March, the Irish Supergroup joked that it was reapplying for the job as the best band in the world. “Beautiful Day,” from the band’s most recent album, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” had just swept the song and record of the year categories at the Gram- mys, and the group was eager to redeem itself on a rompin’ stompin’ tour after a decade of toying with conceptual high-tech stage shows that found the band too ironic to rock.
The stripped-down and punched-up “Elevation” was all about embracing the stature as rock royalty without apologies or a wink, about wearing black leather pants because that’s what the girls like. Bono primped and teased around the stage-bordering catwalk like the world’s last rock star.
Then, about seven weeks ago, the tour turned into a crusade and songs became prayers. In a tragic flash, U2 became socially relevant again because no other band has so emphatically believed in rock’s potential for catharsis and change. Where Whitney Houston and Lee Greenwood rereleased patriotic tunes and Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson wrote new ones, U2 was already in place, out on the road, to provide a deeper, more meaningful form of healing. Several acts postponed tours or canceled shows after the planes hit and the towers tumbled, but for U2, whose 1983 breakout album “War,” included one of the most eloquent expressions of grief and measured anger in “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the time to tour has never been better.
The band’s oft-criticized attempts to politicize arena rock will be welcome Monday night, when U2 plays from a heart-shaped stage at the Frank Erwin Center. The current climate of fear and uncertainty calls for a sweeping view of humanity from artists unafraid to be less than cool. That would be U2, who is this sad season’s “only band that matters.” Love will be coming to town in a private jet named “Elevationair,” emblazoned with a logo of a heart inside a suitcase. It’s a good time to be obvious.
‘Twasn’t always thus. Eleven years ago, at the height of their popularity, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. decided they were becoming too obvious, too comfortable, and they still hadn’t found what they were looking for. In 1990, the band of the ’80s took an ax to “The Joshua Tree,” with Bono announcing at the group’s final concert of the year that he and his mates were “going to go away for a while and dream it all up again.” The band’s co-producer, Brian Eno, made a list of what would be the best elements in the group’s change in artistic direction. “Trashy,” “sexy,” dark” and “industrial” were some of the new buzzwords, while on the list of what not to be, Eno had scribbled “earnest,” “righteous” and “rockist.” It was as if Fabio decided to shave his head.
The resulting departure LP, “Achtung Baby,” was a conspiracy of chaotic beats and jagged guitars that ended up on most critics’ “Best of 1991” lists. The media manipulation manifesto “Zooropa” followed in ’93 as some sort of weird and funky postcard from the “Zoo TV” tour. Then came the band’s ill-advised electronica exercise, “Pop,” in 1997.
For U2, which released its first album, “Boy,” in 1980 and deconstructed in 1990, the new century called for another stylistic shift — a return to the earnest, righteous, rockist days on “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”
Change has always been at the whim of the band, but this season necessity is calling the shots. The back-to-basics tour now has greater implications, the small steps asked to spring into a giant leap for mankind. But if any group can pull off this call to wed the musically riveting and the spiritually invigo- rating, it’s the one whose singer once held up Frank Sinatra as proof that God is a Catholic.
“This is a good song, but Joey Ramone made it a great one,” Bono said by way of introducing “In a Little While” at Madison Square Garden in June. Bono had been touched to find out that his hero, the person who inspired him to join a band, was listening to the song for solace in the final moments of his life.
They’re not just a group you listen to, they’re one you turn to.
They’ve always been a good band, but recent events have made U2 a great one.