NEW YORK In the middle of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Bono sauntered down the heart-shaped runway around the stage and stopped directly in front of a young lady holding a large American flag. The singer reached out and took the cloth symbol from her, clutched it against his chest and bowed his head for a few moments while guitarist the Edge, wearing a Yankees T-shirt, vamped away.
It was the only real nod to September 11 during the band's regular 90-minute set at Madison Square Garden. For a group known for political activism, the lack of commentary seemed unusual, especially since Bono repeatedly mentioned how thrilled he was that the Irish Republican Army has started to disarm. (Click for photos from the concert.)
"Today is a great day for us because the IRA have put their arms to bed," he beamed, wearing a black leather jacket with a red star above his heart. "We are thankful these men and women have made this choice. Now we're back to civil rights. That's what we ought to fight [for]."
It wouldn't have been much of a leap for Bono to segue his comments about the IRA a known terrorist group into a speech about Osama bin Laden and the war in Afghanistan, but he refrained, letting the lyrics of songs like "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "New York" do the talking.
It turned out the group was holding its rhetoric until the encore, when a performance of "One" was accompanied by a scrolling list of the September 11 victims on a giant screen at the back of the stage. First came NYPD and FDNY casualties, then the passengers and crew from each of the hijacked flights. And when the band broke into "Peace on Earth" the names of thousands killed in the World Trade Center began to roll by. When projectors also splashed the endless roll call over the walls in the arena, one could see that the venue was as awash in tears as it was with names.
Despite the powerful finale, the concert was anything but woeful or agonized. Throughout the night, U2 rocked like unjaded veterans, playing hit after hit while the crowd sang and danced in response, letting the music sweep away tension and fear for three hours. Whether strutting like a rooster, spreading his arms in a messianic pose or fake-dueling the Edge along the runway and collapsing in mock death, Bono had the audience wrapped around his wraparound sunglasses, and though his voice sounded slightly worn from many nights of performing, his charisma never waned. And whether Bono was cooing softly, yelping or mugging for the cameras, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. kept the rhythms solid and driving.
After a passion-soaked "Angel of Harlem," a woman holding a sign drew a comment from Bono: "America knows it pays to advertise. This young lady wants to play guitar, and she knows the chords." The girl was helped onstage and handed a guitar for a seemingly impromptu jam of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." She even upstaged Bono for a moment, taking the microphone to sing in her best Dylan drawl, "I'm sick and tired of this war/ New York City is the best place/ Knocking on heaven's door."
Praise for the Big Apple was the motif of the night, and after "New York" Bono exclaimed, "Here in New York nobody looks at nobody else funny. Even if you're a Muslim or a dignified follower of Islam you belong in New York City. Muggers, rock stars, megalomaniacs and peanut sellers can all get along."
Much of the show was unchanged from the band's earlier trek across the country. Of course, the band played "Elevation" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." During "Pride (In the Name of Love)" U2 showed a snippet of Martin Luther King's "Promised Land" speech on the screen, and for "Bullet the Blue Sky" Bono shined a giant flashlight across various faces in the crowd.
Then U2 played a plaintive version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" filled with high, sustained keyboards and ringing, plucked guitar lines. The song is the centerpiece of a campaign Bono is spearheading to fight AIDS in Africa. That effort was sidetracked by September 11 but it remains a cause U2 are firmly committed to.
Before the show-ending commemoration of "One," Bono said, "We're all one. Turn a song into a prayer. And when the dust settles and all this evil has been pushed aside, we can do something in Africa. We've seen what happens when Afghanistan implodes. Can you imagine what will happen if the entire continent of Africa is left to implode?"
Garbage provided a less political warm-up for the evening's headliners as well as a surprise for some fans. As a redhead with pouty lips, writhing hips and some mighty tight outfits, Garbage vocalist Shirley Manson was an alternative sex kitten with dirty-girl attitude. But when she took the Garden stage it became clear that "Androgyny" isn't just the name of the band's new single it's her new look.
With her short-cropped hair dyed platinum blond and wearing black bike gloves, a baggy white T-shirt and black jeans connected by oversized black suspenders, Manson was less pinup babe and more tomboy, and she reveled in the role, escalating her performance from sensual diva to fun-loving goofball.
She flung karate kicks into the air during "Stupid Girl," jogged in place for "Only Happy When It Rains" and made bizarre comments through the set. "This is about a friend who lived through the blackest of times and came out a bigger, faster bionic person," she said before "Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)."
Sonically, Garbage were equally compelling, deftly translating the processing, loops and keyboards from their studio records to the stage. Drummer Butch Vig, who has produced albums by Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and others, triggered many of the band's electronics from his kit, and guitarist Steve Marker and bassist Duke Erikson kept the organic rhythms flowing with grace, giving the songs less electronic atmosphere than they have on record.
"Opening for U2 is like going to rock school," Manson said. "You learn things along the way." Maybe so, but judging from the crowd's response, Garbage would make the honor roll even without the tutoring.