The theme this evening was love — fraternal, communal and spiritual love, not romance or lust.
“All you need is love,” John Lennon and his fellow Beatles declared via the PA system just before U2 took the stage, setting forth the agenda for the next two hours.
Older, humbler and finished with all its adventures into camp and irony, Ireland’s best-known rock band is touring a different America these days: a country feeling as patriotic, aggrieved, war-torn, resolute and full of itself as ever.
“We are humbled and proud to be playing in America at this time,” Bono said, a line that was rehearsed, of course, but sincere and apropos nonetheless, considering the gist of the show: Even the Spartan stage was shaped like a heart — two red arcs rimmed in light, which were recycled from the golden McDonald’s arch that was the garish idol of U2’s 1997 PopMart tour.
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It was a fitting transformation.
From the opening chords of the first tune, “Elevation,” fans showed plenty of love and zeal: They danced, sang and waved arms, flags and handmade signs bearing political and personal messages.
The 20-song set list covered a wide range of material from U2’s 21-year recording career. “New Year’s Day,” the first pre-1990 tune, got the first huge response, until the Edge followed that with the opening two-note guitar riff to “I Will Follow,” which prompted an immense roar.
Bono tripped over the lyrics to that one but ended it with an amusing verse in which he recalled a show at the Uptown Theater in 1979 or so when he was unable to buy a drink because he was only 18. (The moral: Never deny an Irishman his drink.)
The band followed that with another standard that detonated the crowd, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Toward the end, as he stood at the point of the big, glowing heart, Bono buried his face in Irish and American flags he’d gathered from fans. Hokey? OK, but give the guy his due. He can play a crowd like Les Paul could play a guitar.
There were more big moments to come: “Angel of Harlem,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and — one of the most exciting cuts of the night — “Where the Streets Have No Name,” in which the Edge let loose with several of his exultant guitar riffs.
After 15 songs, the band split but quickly came back for its first encore: a raw, blistering version of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” a brief cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and then one from the new record, “New York,” which set the stage for the finale.
As he raised one finger high, Bono led the band into “One.”
At that point, the screens behind the band turned blue and the names of Sept. 11 victims — airline workers and passengers, firefighters, police officers — scrolled up and off the screen and over the walls and ceiling of Kemper Arena as Bono sang: “ ... One life, but we’re not the same/We get to carry each other, carry each other.”
The seemingly endless scroll of names continued as the band segued into a few bars of “Peace On Earth” and then into “Walk On, “ a salve about hope and redemption that seemed trite and mawkish several months ago.
The difference between then and now, though, is precisely why Bono’s farewell — “We love you, Kansas City” — felt more than cursory and why that Beatles’ song fit so indelibly into this stirring and memorable night.