PITTSBURGH — The U2 concert Tuesday truly was out of this world.
“Hello Pittsburgh,” came the greeting on the 360-degree video screen from astronaut Mark Kelly aboard the International Space Station.
Kelly, husband of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, spelled out the signature line and title of U2’s next and ninth song “It’s a Beautiful Day,” which the Irish rockers then played, later cutting back to the video screen showing Kelly reciting one of the verses as the crowd at Heinz Field roared.
U2 had plenty more surprises, all the way up to the very end of its two-hour-25-minute performance. After the band had finished its third encore choice, 2009’s “Moment of Surrender,” which has been the show-ender at prior tour dates, singer Bono called a huddle. Bandmates Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen and The Edge gathered round, then they broke from the huddle, went back to their posts and began playing “Bad,” a poignant song about a junkie and longtime friend of the band who is now in recovery, and was in the Heinz Field audience visiting from Cleveland.
The band took the stage shortly after 9 to the strains of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” a snippet of which the band later played live during “Beautiful Day” to complement the space station video visit.
Bono called Pittsburgh “The Steel City” a few times, adding it was intimidating playing in the City of Champions, “because of all the great people you’ve had come out of here.”
He didn’t mean sports heroes, as he then compared his bandmates to western Pennsylvania artists and entertainers, saying the Edge, is like “the great Andy Warhol, who changed the game,” while the stylish Clayton “is the Perry Como of U2,” and actor Mullen “is the Charles Bronson of U2.” “I will be the Christina Aguilera of U2,” Bono said. “She can sing,” he said with respect. I’m in touch with my inner chick.”
Bono recalled that U2’s first Pittsburgh show was in May 1981, though he couldn’t remember the name of the joint, so he asked fans for help. He eventually realized spectators accurately were shouting “The Decade,” after the defunct Oakland nightclub. “And what a decade it was,” Bono quipped. “I was proud of my mullet.”
Bono still has one of the world’s most stirring voices, though I thought there were a couple moments when he played it safe and lowered his range a bit, notably on the late-set “One.” Maybe he was just saving breath for the song that came next, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” which began marvelously with a bit of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
While certainly one of the best concerts of the year, it would be tough to pick a standout song. So many of them sounded excellent. You could make a good argument for “Mysterious Ways” or “I Will Follow,” which were songs No. 3 and 5; mid-setter “Elevation,” which is what fans on the floor sought by jumping up and down; or “Vertigo,” which arrived two-thirds into the show.
The Edge’s one-of-a-kind chiming guitar sound provided many glorious moments, one of the best coming with his super-fast strumming on “City of Blinding Lights.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a U2 concert without Bono preaching about politics and social causes. He enlightened spectators about Burmese Democracy party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner recently freed from a lengthy house arrest prompted by her non-violent political protests. She gave a heartfelt greeting on the cylindrical video screen, too, reminding people that there are other political prisoners who need help.
Bono spoke briefly on behalf of Amnesty International, and thanked Americans for financial contributions he said have kept alive 5 million people in Africa.
This was the final night of the band’s U.S. tour — the last stop of the two-year trek is Saturday in Moncton, New Brunswick — and Bono thanked fans “For this grand madness,” motioning to the band’s gargantuan, record-sized stage with its 150-foot tower.
I didn’t think the stage lived up to its hype. Yes, it offered unparalleled sight lines, and there was a runway surrounding it, with two movable bridges that enabled the band to get out in the crowd a bit. Still, I didn’t feel the band got far enough into the audience, or maybe I got spoiled seeing Taylor Swift play a few songs in the back of the Heinz Field surface, while later soaring high above it on a rigged platform. OK, she’s younger, and she does have an album called “Fearless.”
U2’s opening act Interpol impressed with its 41-minute set. Singer Paul Bradley’s deep, serious delivery was enjoyable, as was guitarist Daniel Kessler’s note-bending, gut-grabbing style.