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MUSIC REVIEW

This time, bigger isn’t better for U2

By James Reed
Globe Staff / September 22, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Right after the triumphant first song, Bono explained what everyone must have been curious about early in the evening: What, exactly, was the massive green canopy with orange disks that arched ominously over the stage. Was it a spider? A tentacle?

“We got a spaceship,’’ the U2 frontman said Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, “but we’re not going anywhere without you. Are you ready for the ride?’’

The nearly sold-out crowd was indeed, but the show didn’t quite take off like it should have. Instead it revved its motor, flashed its headlights, and stayed firmly grounded as U2 stumbled over an unlikely hurdle: a sprawling stage setup that often dulled the sensation of a tight-knit performance.

If there’s any outsize band with the charisma, chops, and catalog to pull off a tour of this magnitude, it’s U2. And it certainly tried, relying on Bono’s magnetism and his bandmates’ inspired playing, not to mention an audience that was clearly stoked.

The insurmountable problem, however, was the expanse of the stage, which connected to an outer circular one where Bono and guitarist the Edge and bassist Adam Clayton roamed like satellites. At times each member, in his own spotlight, was working a different part of the stadium, to the point that they sometimes lost the intimacy of a unit.

Granted, these guys are so good and seasoned that they don’t need to be rubbing shoulders to convey their camaraderie. But when they really connected - when Bono seemed awed by the Edge’s acoustic accompaniment and backup singing on “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,’’ or when Bono leaned into Clayton during the high point of “Elevation’’ - the chemistry was intense and contagious.

The arena anthems, which at a U2 concert tend to be shouted rather than sung, came fast and furious, from newer (“Get on Your Boots,’’ “Beautiful Day’’) to older (“Mysterious Ways,’’ “Sunday Bloody Sunday’’). It’s hard to deny the charm and vitality of those classics, which inadvertently made some of the more recent songs, especially the ones from the band’s latest album, “No Line on the Horizon,’’ pale even more than they should have.

“Magnificent’’ and “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,’’ with its dance-floor coda, felt like stadium rock for stadium rock’s sake. “Unknown Caller’’ dampened the spirited vibe with elliptical lyrics (“escape yourself and gravity’’) masquerading as self-help advice.

But even that misstep couldn’t deaden Bono’s charisma. He’s become the prototypical frontman who knows how to work stadiums; in fact, you suspect he’s at his best in front of 50,000 people. During “City of Blinding Lights,’’ Bono plucked a young girl from the crowd and essentially serenaded her, even putting his famous tinted glasses on her at one point.

It was a small gesture, a fleeting moment of intimacy, that reminded you of how magical Bono and his bandmates are when they connect to the audience - and with one another.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

U2

With Snow Patrol

At: Gillette Stadium, Sunday night

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