U2 / PJ Harvey : Toronto Air Canada Centre

Peej rocks, and even Bono and the boys surprise, after all these years...

If U2 are, as Bono is wont to say, re-applying for the job of ‘Best Band In The World’, then the some 20,000 faithful who’ve gathered here tonight are tantamount to a company welcome wagon.

But first, pity poor PJ Harvey, who suffers the indignity of playing an absolutely storming set to a woefully bare arena. Bless her, though, because not even the depressing emptiness of the Air Canada Centre can stop the indomitable Peej from putting on her best pre-game face. Even from afar, the demure Harvey is a spindly force, prancing brazenly around the stage like a party hostess who’s spiked the punch. By the time her straw-limbed Jaggerisms propel set closer ‘Big Exit’ into a crash landing of white noise, she’s managed to elicit polite applause from the Toronto faithful. It is, admittedly, a lot like trying to wring sugar from a lemon.

Of which, incidentally, there are none of tonight. To match the measured maturity of their latest record, U2 have substantially curbed the bravado of their live spectacle. Even their entrance is suitably humble – with the house lights still on, they amble onstage unannounced, almost meekly, and kick into a turbocharged ‘Elevation’. The lights remain on for the first half of the song, until a pre-chorus, ‘Creep’-styled guitar ch-chunk and good tidings (“Happy Birthday Bob Dylan”) from a jovial Bono send everyone into spotlight-dappled darkness. It’s a brilliant move – one that’s wholly suggestive of U2‘s new ethic. If ‘Pop’ was about capitalizing on our postmodern, campy sensibilities (making an entrance from the stomach of a glittery lemon), then ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’ is about becoming re-acquainted with nothing but the basics (lights on, lights off).

Make no mistake though – just as you wouldn’t go to a Geri Halliwell show and expect, say, a series of Faust covers, you don’t go to a U2 arena gig and expect, well, subtlety. As such, their movements, finely cultivated after years of playing even larger venues, come off as broad strokes on this cavernous canvas. And although the over-the-top, ostentatious moments of rock opera glitziness are far behind them, they’ve still got a bulging bag of tricks.

If anything, U2 reveal themselves tonight to be the Tantric Gods of Arena Rock, pacing themselves beautifully. Their songs, their lighting tricks, their audiovisual devices are each unveiled gradually, each one toppling the next, each building on the imminent sensory overload. In fact, by the time the night is done, the impossibly blissful crowd seem desperate to not only give them the job, but also to promote them.

Whether that’s even humanly possible at this point is, fittingly, in the band’s hands.

Mark Pytlik