"Now, I don't know about you," said U2 frontman Bono to the crowd at RFK Stadium Saturday night, "but I can only dance in the rain."
Maybe so, but it rained far more than he danced. Indeed, the misty drizzle that hung in the air at the start of the show turned drenching by the time the group got to "One," leaving everyone -- both band and fans -- skin-soaked and sopping. Even so, the wet weather scarcely dampened the audience's enthusiasm, as most of the more than 50,000 listeners were totally entranced, hanging attentively on every note and gesture.
Of course, it hardly hurt that U2's "Outside Broadcast" version of its ZOO TV Tour boasts what is undoubtedly the most dazzling multi-media display ever trucked into a football stadium. Never mind the million-watt sound system; that was almost the lesser part of the massive stage set. In addition to the towering steel-frame antennas and colorful "ZOO TV" neon, there were also video message boards displaying news briefs and other text, Times Square-style, as well as such oddities as hand-painted Trebants (an East German economy car) mounted on hydraulic lifts as lighting devices.
But all that was nothing compared to the video display system TC the band brought along. With four mega-screens, four Vidi-Walls and 36 studio-sized video monitors nestled in and among the instruments and speakers, U2's stage had more total TV screenage than many suburbs. And the band made good use of it, too, integrating musical and visual content so completely that it was, at times, like watching a live version of MTV (which is, not-so-coincidentally, one of the tour's sponsors).
Whether as pointedly comic as the set-opening sequence that took a Gulf War clip of George Bush addressing Congress and edited it so that it seemed as if the president were quoting Queen ("We will, we will, rock you," he droned), or subtly subversive as the flood of messages that flashed on screen during "The Fly," U2 never let the medium turn into a massage. Even when Bono did his own little couch potato bit, using an actual remote control to flick from channel to channel between songs, the effect was as much satire as celebration. After all, nothing underscores the crassness of home shopping shows as a 20-foot screen.
Stunning as they were, however, the visuals rarely stole the music's thunder. And though some of the credit for that goes to the band's planning, most of it belongs with its playing. U2 is, at this point, probably the most accomplished concert act on Earth, and not even the crummy acoustics at RFK could undercut the band's power, precision or unerring musicality.
Granted, the song list hadn't changed much since the spring, when U2 played the Spectrum in Philadelphia, but that didn't mean what we were getting was more of the same. A few tunes had been retro-fitted with different rhythmic approaches. "Desire," for instance, took on a snarling, industrial edge that added grit to its groove, while "Mysterious Ways" was presented with a throbbing, house-style pulse that made the most of the sound system's bass-heavy boom.
There were also occasions when U2 seemed to strip away the distance that hobbles most stadium shows and made the crowd feel as if they were seeing a club show. More often than not, these moments came during the quieter songs, like Bono's solo rendition of "She's a Mystery to Me" or the band's acoustic reading of "Angel of Harlem," which segued into an unexpectedly poignant version of ABBA's "Dancing Queen."
But they didn't always, and in some sense, the concert's most memorable moments came during the loud bits. "Bullet the Blue Sky" was one of the best, building through a howling, Hendrixian solo from the Edge to a climax that found Bono on a catwalk in the middle of the crowd, reciting the line, "As we run into the arms of America."
And to see him standing there, arms outstretched, as the fans lifted their hands to him was to understand just why so many people still believe in the power of rock and roll.