As confetti rained down on the San Diego Sports Arena's sweaty, sold-out crowd, Bono stood in the middle of the stage's semicircular runway and bowed to his audience. A modern-day priest in black leather, a shaman shaded by sunglasses, the U2 frontman kicked off the “Vertigo 2005” American tour Monday night with a pulpit-worthy performance. His two-hour display of personal vulnerability, soulful energy and political bravado summarized U2's 25-year maturation into the world's most important band.
Beginning with the dark-fueled swirl of “City of Blinding Lights,” Bono, guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. plowed into the hit “Vertigo” with a relentless drive.
“You give me something I can feel!” sang-shouted Bono, as he writhed, crawled and finally lay down on the runway set just off the stage's main platform. The Edge's power chords crashed with an intensity reminiscent of Keith Richards or Jimi Hendrix.
Though Bono — now with his own environmentally conscious clothing line and umpteenth Nobel Peace Prize nomination — is always the star of the show, without his longtime mates, U2 would be a preacher without a congregation.
“I'm going back to where it started first,” the singer said, as the group launched into a number from 1983's “War.”
Drummer Mullen, with his slicked-back rockabilly pompadour and smooth face, looked ageless next to Bono, whose slim figure recalled a time when the band, then in their late teens, performed an ambitious collage of dark punk in Dublin bars.
Hits came back to back like favorite hymns, and the audience hungrily embraced each one.
“Beautiful Day” opened up Bono's falsetto into a skyward thrust of guileless emotion. The melodic love song “New Year's Day” followed with the equally love-drenched “Miracle Drug.”
“It's a great night for us to make it here; we weren't sure we would,” said Bono cryptically about midway through. “It's a miracle.”
God, love, death, war and peace are the heavy themes that have consistently swept through Bono's lyrics, lending U2 a primal depth. And if any song spoke to the singer's heart the most, it was “Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own” from the band's latest album.
“You don't have to put up a fight / You don't have to always be right / Let me take some of the punches / For you tonight,” Bono sang about his father, who died in 2001.
Letting his distinct baritone warble and soar above Clayton's plunging bass lines and The Edge's treble-sweet guitar, Bono took off his requisite sunglasses, revealing vulnerable eyes that were just as quickly shrouded again.
The mood then changed. He donned a thick white headband depicting a Star of David, a cross and a Muslim symbol.
The anthemic staccato single “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” about religiously motivated violence in Northern Ireland during the early '80s, returned Bono to his fervent roots.
Later on, he placed the headband over his eyes like a prisoner, falling to his knees and crossing his wrists over his head. A huge screen scrolling the text of 1948's “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” hung above him.
By the time U2 played their first of two encores — six songs, both old and new — Bono was in a frenzy of pure zest. He invoked the memory of Martin Luther King, slapping his chest and calling out “Africa! Africa!” during 1984's “Pride (In the Name of Love).” A curtain of lights behind him showcased African flags.
The crowd sang along to the last three songs, from the tearful pop echo of “One” to the humble words of “Yahweh” to the lingering love-laced chorus of “40.”
“I will sing, sing a new song,” Bono chatted. “How long to sing this song?” the crowd chanted back, over and over, until the only sound heard throughout the arena was the forceful thickness of thousands of voices in unison, long after U2 had walked off stage.