Bono for Pontiff 

The only problem: Who could possibly replace him in the arena rock pantheon?

Bono would make an excellent candidate for pope. Yes, pope. He is outlandishly charismatic, reasonably eloquent, vaguely spiritual, tremendously photogenic. His popularity, meanwhile, is unparalleled -- the devout already deify him, and even skeptics and nonbelievers offer grudging respect. No one alive can more effectively claim to be a uniter, not a divider.

Does Bono crap in the woods?

This pope thing was not my idea. No, I most properly credit it to Coma Guy, thus named because he spent the first half of U2's Sunday night San Jose arena-rock hootenanny ass-out passed-out, slumped in his $160 HP Pavilion seat, face buried in his hands, motionless. Fellow concertgoers showed interest and concern, as did, briefly, an usher. But we let Coma Guy lay, and after an hour, he suddenly, drunkenly embarked on an epic song-by-song comeback.

"Sunday Bloody Sunday"

Coma Guy raises his right arm, shakes it rhythmically. All other body parts still motionless.

"Bullet the Blue Sky"

Coma Guy starts air-drumming, while seated. Eyes closed, lower half still motionless.

"Running to Stand Still"

Coma Guy whoops "C'MON, BONO!" repeatedly during this quiet piano ballad.

"Pride (In the Name of Love)"

Coma Guy rises to his feet and begins gyrating enthusiastically. Midway through the song, Bono starts preaching about Martin Luther King Jr. and the universality of his Dream. "There's an American dream," Bono intones. "There's a European dream ..." "YOU'RE IRISH!!!" shouts Coma Guy.

"Where the Streets Have No Name"

Coma Guy barrels down the aisle and attempts to bum-rush the barrier to the standing-room HP Pavilion floor. He is politely but firmly rebuked, and returns to his seat.

"One"

Coma Guy starts shouting "DO YOU WANNA BE POPE?!" as Bono slyly alters the last verse: Have you come here to play Jesus? 'Cause I did.

"Original of the Species"

Coma Guy shouts "POPE BONO!!" repeatedly.

Finally, in the interim before the first encore, Coma Guy attempts to lead a chant of "POPE! POPE! POPE! POPE! POPE!" A few drunk guys sitting nearby actually pick it up.

Ah, U2 concerts. Liking U2 has not been cool for ten years, and will in all likelihood never be cool again. But the absolute stranglehold on Biggest Band in the World honors remains. When this band dies, its insanely high ratio of public adoration to artistic quality dies with it. Ain't nobody else selling out HP Pavilion two nights in a row within minutes, with two November Oakland Arena dates added on and nearly filled up as well. In fact, I will use Coma Guy as a metaphor for the entire American concert industry -- wayward and nearly dead, only temporarily revived by Pope Bono and his unique blend of propriety and piousness.

Because U2 arena shows are entirely about Bono. Bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. have never done anything that suggests they weren't simply hanging out with the right people in the right place at the right time -- Larry even soft-pedals the monstrous "Bullet the Blue Sky" drum fills now, and I myself could train you to play bass in U2 while we drive down to San Jose. The Edge, meanwhile, displays absolute delay-pedal mastery, but very very quietly, with nary an indulgent solo or ridiculous Guitar God pose in sight. (He ripped shit up on "The Fly," though.)

This innocuousness frees U2's frontman to engage in mostly charming but increasingly erratic behavior. The band's stage show still features an enormous full-circle walkway that juts out deep into the crowd, permitting Bono to stroll among his devotees in damn near slow motion, strutting less like a sex machine and more like a narcotized ape. At one point he crawled around on his belly, grabbed an elated young lady's arm, and repeatedly tapped his fingers slowly up her arm like a spider: Whether this represents innovative showmanship, Rock Icon Economy of Movement, or too many bottles of Captain Morgan on the tour rider is anyone's guess. A trail of lit-up cell phone cameras follows him everywhere he goes, as though he's trapped in some sort of Silicon Valley nature preserve. The evening's one awe-inspiring moment came when he told everyone to hold up their phones and ordered the stage lights turned down -- his face was perfectly illuminated by a sea of tiny pixelated screens. If this guy now truly believes he's playing Jesus, it's only because we've let him.

Ah yes: He also sings, most passionately on the new tearjerker ballad "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own." Most other tunes on U2's new How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb were safe, blandish sorta-rockers that, oddly enough, still revved up the crowd just as intensely as hungrier cuts from 25-year-old debut album Boy and all the monster hits in between, from "New Year's Day" to "Mysterious Ways" to "Beautiful Day." All were delivered straight-faced and workmanlike -- pointedly, we heard nothing from U2's much-sneered-at mid-'90s Pop and Zooropa irony records, sonically experimental but overly cute. Just no-bullshit rock now, thanks. Ideally, a band with a quarter-century of material to plunder delivers a few outta-nowhere deep-cut tunes at a show like this, but only the Joshua Tree highlight "Running to Stand Still" really qualifies for that.

So they're getting older, subtler, weirder, more visibly fatigued. U2 can still do what no other band alive can -- deliver two hours of highly entertaining arena rock that justifies the cost without anyone embarrassing themselves. Who will replace these dudes? Certainly not show-openers Kings of Leon, fashion rockers with decent tunes who looked terminally cool and terminally bored. Hey, knuckleheads, this is the sweetest gig you'll ever get; I can mathematically prove your lives are entirely headed downhill from this day forward. Because though they're holding back, falling short, and insufficiently mining a ludicrously fertile back catalogue, Bono and the boys are still scintillatingly singular deities of a sort we may never find cause to worship again. When they finally ride their gilded Popemobiles into the sunset, we will all turn into Coma Men and Women, slumped into arena seats we're no longer willing to buy.

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