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U2 in Brooklyn: Under the Bridge

Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park
November 22

A few years ago, Bono famously told anyone who would listen (on several occasions, we might add) that U2 was re-applying for the job of greatest rock band in the world. And even though there weren’t really loads of other bands actively pursuing that position at the time, U2 diligently crafted an ambitious global jaunt that brought their fans back to the forefront, both physically–they packed the luckiest fans into a heart-shaped area within the stage (Aww! U2 loves you!)–and emotionally by cracking open parts of its back catalog that hadn’t been accessed in more than a decade. Simply put, they got the gig, and sold 4.2 million copies of 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind in the process.

Yesterday, U2 behaved as if none of that had ever happened.

“The world’s greatest rock band” staged the kind of promotional extravaganza that could only be pulled off by–you guessed it–“the world’s greatest rock band,” and capped the day with an 11-song twilight set at the base of the historic Brooklyn Bridge for an estimated crowd of 5,000. While the set list leaned heavily on tracks from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which hits stores today, U2 squeezed in classics like “I Will Follow,” “Beautiful Day,” “She’s a Mystery to Me,” and “Out of Control,” the band’s first single and a total treat for die-hard fans.

The day began with the band performing its next single, “All Because of You,” atop a flatbed trailer while traveling from Harlem all the way down Broadway to the Manhattan Bridge as choppers zoomed overhead, filming for a future video. Meanwhile, thousands of work-ditchers–many had lined up along the East River for hours waiting to gain entry into the concert area at Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park–cheered emphatically as U2’s trailer crossed the Manhattan Bridge and made its way into Brooklyn. As the sun began to disappear behind the Manhattan skyline, U2 strode onstage around 4:30 p.m. and greeted the audience with the “Hello, hello” of its current single, “Vertigo.”

All of this pomp begged a question: Why did “the world’s greatest rock band” still need to pull off these kinds of stunts, like taking over an entire city for a day or–as chronicled in this magazine’s December cover story–picking up random kids on the streets of Dublin to give them a lift and play them tracks from the new album? Looking around at the faces during last night’s spectacle–which was filmed by MTV for a Dec. 8 special–it became abundantly clear: only a band as massive as U2 is capable of giving its fans experiences that will instantly rank among the highlights of their lives. Taking a moment to glance away from the stage, there was the short, red-haired Irish-from-Ireland lass bounding in the air to see her heroes, the mother and son singing the words to “Beautiful Day” together, the veteran of every tour since Boy hoping for one moment when Bono’s bespectacled eyes would meet his, and all of this framed by one of the world’s most undeniably breathtaking urban backdrops.

Thousands line up for U2’s secret show.
photo by Alexandra Gershman

Further evidence: in one of his frequent soliloquies last night, Bono spoke at length about how the band wanted to reconnect with what was important in the beginning, and what it was like to start out as a band. While that sentiment might scream “midlife crisis” to some therapists, it actually foreshadowed how the band sounded at times, stumbling a bit through what were likely the first live performances of songs from Atomic Bomb. On the sparse “Original of the Species,” Bono played his guitar uncomfortably for the first few bars, fiddling with the pickups, and shooting a few unsure glances at the Edge, who’d moved over to the piano. But anxiety soon turned to smiles as the song blossomed into a classic in the vein of latter year U2 ballads like “Walk On,” “Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” and “Stay.” Afterwards, Bono smirked, “That was funny,” and poked fun at his own guitar skills.

Of course, no U2 show would be complete without the requisite tearjerker moments. Bono introduced “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” with a moving tribute to his father, Bob Hewson, who passed in 2001. “He left me with a gift,” the singer said, “giving me a voice back that I haven’t had for many years,” referring to the falsetto bit of the song’s chorus. Tilting his head toward the sky before cueing the band, Bono said sweetly, “Thanks for the big note; don’t fuck up now.” Next, Bono mined less personal and more melodramatic territory, describing Christopher Nolan, the cerebral palsy-stricken poet who attended the same Irish school as all four U2 members and served as the inspiration for “Miracle Drug,” sonically, the flattest moment of the set.

The fact that many of those in attendance already had the Bomb–it leaked onto the Internet weeks ago–actually helped the band last night; not financially, of course, but a set that kicked off with six straight new songs could have been truly boring if so many people weren’t singing along. Intelligently, Bono made light of the whole situation. “How do you know all this shit?” the singer exclaimed at one point, then turned to look offstage. “Hey, Paul [McGuinness, the band’s manager]. I think we found the people who downloaded the album.” But after playing the songs inspired by youth, U2 closed the set with a song recorded in those early days, “I Will Follow,” and made everyone feel about ten years younger. Two songs stunned even the devotees: “She’s a Mystery to Me,” a song Bono wrote for the late Roy Orbison, and the band’s first single, “Out of Control,” another fitting accompaniment to Bono’s earlier comments.

Of all the unforgettable instances U2 could conjure, the new “City of Blinding Lights” embodied the experience, almost as if it had been written specifically for Bono to sing by the Brooklyn Bridge on a chilly November evening on the eve of his album’s release. “Time won’t leave me as I am,” the 44-year-old Bono crooned, spending a few bars on the word “time” alone, “But time won’t take the boy out of this man.” Then, to the audience he sang, “Oh, you look so beautiful tonight,” and then, gesturing to Lower Manhattan’s scarred but glittering skyline, “in the city of blinding lights.” Four years into the job of “world’s greatest rock band,” and U2’s making its case for a raise.

To see photos from U2’s special Brooklyn concert, click here.