PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia--"Well, we've been away for a while," announced Bono just a few songs into U2's concert at the Philadelphia Spectrum last night. "But," he added, pausing to let a sly smile spread across his face, "we're back."
Indeed they are. And though it has been five years since the Irish quartet last hit the road, it's clear that U2 has lost little in the way of momentum. If anything, the Philadelphia show -- the closest this Zoo TV Tour came to Baltimore on its first leg -- showed the band to be sharper than ever, effortlessly whipping the capacity crowd into a fist-pumping chorus-singing frenzy.
Of course, given the number of familiar favorites the band packed into its song list, a certain amount of audience adulation was to be expected. But U2 didn't just play the hits last night. At its best, the band transformed them, stretching "Mysterious Ways" into an itchy, entrancing groove tune that went twice as long as the recorded version but never seemed overextended, or turning "Pride [In the Name of Love]" into an exultant memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.
Nor was that the only sort of liberty U2 took. This was called the Zoo TV Tour for a reason -- U2 kept the stage packed with video imagery, and many songs played off the constant visual noise, offering a sort of point-counterpoint to the material.
On "The Fly," for instance, the lyrics' string of truisms were echoed and undercut by a flood of words and aphorisms (including the phrase, "Watch More TV"). Likewise,"Even Better Than the Real Thing" offered a blur of pictures captured from C-Span, QVC and religious broadcasting. Yet for all the visual flash, it was still the music that dazzled most. U2 is blessed with perhaps the most supple and soulful rhythm section in rock today. They made the most of it last night as the band moved easily from the gentle thrum of "Bad" to the explosive throb of "Bullet the Blue Sky" without the slightest strain.
Even so, the groove never quite stole the spotlight away from Bono himself, who mugged, flirted and otherwise entranced the obviously enthusiastic fans. Typical was a turn during "Until the End of the World" that found the singer slinking down a catwalk into the heart of the audience as fans reached like supplicants to touch the hem of his black leather jeans.
No wonder the crowd moved almost as one when the band unleashed the bulldozer and the Bo Diddley-beat of "Desire." As Bono put it at one point, "Tonight, Philadelphia belongs to me." And as far as the fans at the Spectrum were concerned, the feeling was mutual.