Review: U2 at Key Arena in Seattle, April 25, 2005*

April 27, 2005

By Julie Rowe
2005.04

If die-hards felt a little "rocked" to sleep at the Key Arena Sunday, their wake-up call was on its way. Maybe U2 was looking for a little redemption, or maybe the band was just hitting its stride, but whatever the case may be, U2 blew the house down on Monday night in Seattle. Opening with "City of Blinding Lights," Monday’s set list varied a bit from Sunday’s. A lot of fans may have expected more songs from "All That You Can’t Leave Behind," but U2 only delivered "Beautiful Day" and a partially a cappella "Elevation" with a few notes of "In A Little While" tossed right in the middle to tease the audience before the music kicked in near the end.

Back catalog favorites such as "Gloria," "The Ocean" and "New Year’s Day" filled the slots for older material, with "Gloria" sounding especially first-rate. During an emotional rendition of "Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own," Bono selected a boy named Jason to escort onstage. Bono draped an arm around his shoulders as they walked, in an almost fatherly gesture that underpinned the content of the song perfectly. "Love and Peace or Else" flowed into "Sunday Bloody Sunday," during which Adam Clayton really shined, stealing the spotlight and definitely enjoying it. Clayton was more visible and enthusiastic on Monday than on Sunday, and all the band members interacted more with the crowd and each other.

"Bullet The Blue Sky" was a medley with "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"—an ode to a country at war—and segued into "The Hands That Built America," a song that many would love to hear more of in concert.

"Running to Stand Still" flowed into the "Bad/Ruby Tuesday" combination, thrilling the enraptured audience. Perhaps the biggest crowd reaction was for "Pride (In the Name of Love)," which was played back-to-back with "Where the Streets Have No Name."

During "One," with thousands of cell phones held aloft, Bono said, "I want to thank you for the spirit in the room of support." He was probably hoping that people were actually texting their names to the One Campaign and not just using cell phones as the 21st century’s answer to the cigarette lighter. As the names scrawled across the screen, at least one was universally recognizable—Microsoft’s own Bill Gates. "There’s a lot of reasons why this group loves Seattle," Bono said. "Some of those reasons are here tonight."

The "Achtung Baby" songs continued with a trilogy of "Zoo Station," "The Fly" and "Mysterious Ways." "Zoo Station," in particular, was electric, and Bono was in top form there, playing to the crowd outside the Ellipse.

The band wrapped up with three new songs and the audience was excited when Bono announced "Original of the Species" by saying, "We’ve only played [it] once before, this could be interesting." It worked out very well, indeed.

During the final set, Bono said he was going to give the audience an English lesson about the word “encore,”—"From the Italian, which means…to play the same f***ing song again!" I’m not sure about the translation but that’s just what the band did, launching into hit single "Vertigo" for the second time that night to close the show, instead of regular tour closer “40.”

If there could be any regrets to be stated, a lot of fans were hoping to see "Until the End of the World" make it back into the set list tonight, but there is no sign of it as yet on the Vertigo Tour.

For the audience, many of whom were already worn out from the previous night, Monday’s show was well worth the effort of returning, and newer fans saw what U2 could really do at full steam. Even opening act Kings Of Leon seemed in better form on Monday and had a nice surprise for the crowd—bringing out some Seattle rock royalty when Eddie Vedder joined the band onstage for its last song.

On to Vancouver!

Review: U2 at Key Arena in Seattle, April 24, 2005*

April 27, 2005

By Julie Rowe
2005.04

U2 fans are a pretty spoiled lot; we only want the best. Did we ask too much, more than a lot? Sunday night’s show, the Seattle opener, was a good show by a great band but it’s fair to say that the general consensus among U2′s die-hard fans was that it was something of a sleeper—at least by comparison with some of the band’s other performances. But even if longtime fans weren’t blown away by Sunday’s performance, new fans, or those seeing them live for the first time, were, leading many to return on Monday, including Seattle’s own Bill Gates who was spotted in the crowd both nights.

And for discerning followers, too, Sunday had its gems, especially the "The Electric Co." and "Stories For Boys"—songs some probably never expected to hear live again.
The show had problems, the band seemed a little low on energy but possibly the biggest issue was the sound. Larry Mullen Jr. was way up in the mix, dominating the music, while The Edge seemed to phase in and out, and Bono was nearly a "drowning man" trying to be heard in the middle of it all. To be fair, sound is often a problem at Key Arena.

"Miracle Drug," played during the middle of the first set, carried a dedication to a woman named Jennifer, who Bono described as being "very brave and cool" despite being "very ill."

"Where the Streets Have No Name," played toward the end of the first set, worked its usual magic over the crowd, with old and new fans alike mesmerized and uplifted. Speaking of which, Bono pulled up three lucky fans on Sunday night, starting with a man at the beginning of the show. Later on Bono chose a blonde woman from within the Ellipse (AKA, the general admission floor), who probably holds the world record for the longest Bono hug—onstage or off. Then she and Bono went for a walk before he kissed her hand and let her down. The last one came during "Mysterious Ways," when Bono again plucked a woman from the audience for a quick dance, and then gave her a piggyback ride to boot.

Near the end of "Bullet The Blue Sky," another first set highlight, a blindfolded Bono knelt down on the stage with his hands above his head, and moments later the sound effect of a gunshot wound was heard, a powerful and disturbing image to accompany a very powerful song.

It wouldn’t make my list of greatest shows, but it certainly had its share of highlights.

Review: U2 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, April 20, 2005*

April 26, 2005

By Matthew Anderson
2005.04

It was a cold and wet April day when U2 touched the ground at DIA. Thankfully, an unforgettable fire set between the band and 19,200 adoring fans kept things nice and hot at Denver’s Pepsi Center Wednesday night.

During the Elevation Tour, the band started each show with the arena lights up. This time around, the entrance was far more dramatic. With all lights off, one handheld spotlight lit the elliptical catwalk.

Another followed.

Then another.

Finally, all four members of the band were on the catwalk, taking a complete lap around the ellipse, shining their spotlights across the arena, a symbolic salute to the crowd, showing off those in the rafters and those on the floor.

It was a stunningly different way to open a show, followed by an entire evening of surprises, magic and incredible music. Mixing it all up, it would be Bono banging on the drums during the opening song, "Love and Peace or Else," and, later on, Larry Mullen Jr. tickling the electronic ivories during "Yahweh."

After four days off, the band was loose and having fun. Bono allowed himself to get lost in his own lyrics during "Beautiful Day," looking for new wonders of the world to rattle off. Finally, after a vocal pause as he pranced around center stage, it came to him, "See the… oh, I don’t know… see the hail stones right in front of you."

It was a timely reference to the late afternoon hail that pelted the diehards queued up outside for prime general admission floor spots.

Prior to that, Bono the Magnificent plucked a young boy, Nicholas, perhaps 10 years old, from the crowd at the tip of the ellipse and treated him to a couple magic finger tricks. Looking back to the center stage and his bandmates, Bono invited the boy to see some more magic. With that, the band kicked into "City of Blinding Lights."

That was indeed pure magic. The music, the lights, Bono, walking hand-in-hand with Nicholas along the entire circumference of the ellipse, through the curtains of light, created an indelible image of wide-eyed wonder, an Oz-like moment in time that no other rock band or Broadway show could replicate.

But the band was hardly done pulling out the magic tricks. The night featured a career-spanning set list that served to emphasize how many great songs U2 has in its bag of goodies. Aside from a few bars of Roy Orbison’s "She’s a Mystery to Me," written for the pop legend by Bono and Edge, there simply wasn’t time to perform cover tunes and rarities that would typically dot the set lists of shows past.

Fulfilling expectations, the band’s new material filled the arena with rich, powerful sounds. "Vertigo" is a new classic, bringing down the house early in the set; "Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own" is a beaut; "Love and Peace" rocked with tremendous thunder. Even the less obvious songs, "Miracle Drug" and "Yahweh," proved their live potency.

Older material was dusted off, with "Electric Co." and "Elevation" playing back-to-back. Nearly stealing the show was a sexy, unexpected rendition of "An Cat Dubh." It put a whole new feline spin on the elliptical catwalk as Bono crouched down and toyed with the audience, reaching out with his Bono-fied claws, teasing his more-than-willing female targets.

In keeping with the band’s free-styling ways, when it came time for "Yahweh," Larry was a little late to the keyboards waiting for him at the edge of the ellipse. Hoping to dart in while Bono wasn’t looking, his efforts were unsuccessful as he fumbled at the keyboard.

Bono seized his opportunity for another lyrical improvisation, "Teach me how… to play this song."

It was a nice one that even the otherwise straight-laced drummer couldn’t help but laugh about.

Ah, but it wasn’t all fun and games. "Bullet the Blue Sky," a concert staple, found new intensity and edge in its presentation as Bono blindfolded himself and slowly raised himself from a kneeling position back to the mike.

The show was heavy on the politics, but not leaning left nor right. Not slamming one politician or another. Not creating anger, but hope. The argument was simple–human rights are universal.

Bono recalled how he used to phone the 41st president, George Bush Sr., during ZooTV. Back then, he commented, the White House wouldn’t take his calls. Now they do, he said, to the rapturous cheering of the crowd.

But, in a well-spoken turn on things, Bono said the White House was getting bored with Bono and it was up to the audience to pick up their cell phones and call and help make poverty history.

Getting back to ZooTV, that classic tour received a fantastic nod from the band as Bono stumbled and mumbled across the catwalk a la his alter ego, The Fly, during "Zoo Station," which made a welcome return into the set list. "The Fly" and "Mysterious Ways," dependable stalwarts of rock, also shook the rafters.

As with their unique stage entrance, the band found a unique way to close out the show during "40." With the crowd singing at the top of their collective lungs, "How long must we sing this song," Bono gracefully exited the stage, followed by Adam, then The Edge.

Finally, there was only Larry, offering up a righteous drum solo. The man who gave Bono his first–and only–day job would be the last to leave the stage.

From start to finish, it was an incredible show. And, if tours past are any indication, the Vertigo Tour will only get better from here.

Constructing U2’s Image*

April 25, 2005

By Dave Mance
2005.04

By now the images are seared onto our brains—I say “U2,” you close your eyes, and . . . voila! Look at it all—25 years of calculated Pavlovian imagery.

Chances are you’re picturing the band from a favorite era (Blue tinted glasses? Sequined pants?) or from a moody Anton Corbijn promotional photo. Maybe you’re not picturing the band at all and are instead free-associating (A crowded stadium? The Amnesty International logo?) The point is, whatever you’re picturing was put there on purpose.

Now I’m not claiming this as any sort of epiphany—of course all celebrities exist in a sort of artificially constructed reality (it’s why and how they’re famous). But it’s still neat to think about. Most of us reading this (myself included) have never met any member of U2. For all we know, the beloved Irish figurines could be robots.

Yet we feel like we know them. Some of us may even write geeky articles about them. All of these images that are branded onto our brains have become an entity in and of themselves.

Any examination of U2′s masterful use of imagery over the years has got to start with how the band constructed their personal image. The humbling fact, in this regard, is that the band was given, visually, very few natural gifts. Put less delicately, what a homely bunch to have to turn into rock stars.

Poor Paul McGuinness circa 1979 stuck with a guitarist who looked like a choirboy, a bass player who looked like Napoleon Dynamite (for those who missed the reference, rent the movie by the same name. The main character’s “look” was obviously styled after “Boy” era Adam Clayton), and a frontman with the world’s largest mullet. Larry Mullen’s good looks were probably the most painful part, as his obvious shyness and roll as drummer in the band were the ironical PR equivalents of an Adonis looking heavyweight boxer with a glass jaw.

But they worked with what they had and succeeded due to a number of factors.

Perhaps most importantly, the band had the ability to hide behind Bono’s manic energy. Whether he’s hopping and lurching spastically in the “I Will Follow” video, dressed up as MacPhisto (an act, Mullen once deadpanned, that was “like pouring a bucket of cold water onto the audience”) during ZooTV or pretending to be a bull by holding two pudgy index fingers atop his head and charging Edge throughout the Elevation Tour—Bono refuses to be embarrassed.

As the band progressed, they too dared to be uncool. Never has a group been afraid to fail (image-wise) so spectacularly. From Edge’s “Boy” era hip swivel dancing to Clayton’s Tangerine ‘Pop Tart’ ensemble, the image faux pas over the years have been numerous.

And the embarrassing images didn’t stop with band members. We cringe when Bono swings the drunken Red Rock’s girl (who’s physically larger than he is) and almost takes out Clayton. We laugh hysterically when a technical malfunction leaves the band trapped inside a 30-foot lemon during the Pop Mart tour. But through these gaffes comes humanization. Every one of us is capable of the same moments of dorkiness and bad taste. In the end, by sometimes failing image-wise, the band endears itself to its fans more than would be possible if they didn’t take risks.

On the other hand, U2 has been so successful in creating indelible images because they’ve given us nothing else. We don’t see them backstage. We don’t see them in the tabloids. We only see what they give us. In Bill Flanagan’s extraordinary book “U2 At The End of the World,” Edge reflects on the bands image, saying, “I love what we do because we control it. Because we’ve set it up where we’re comfortable with it. If it was done in a way where our private lives were an open book, I don’t think I could be in a band.”

The associative image construction, that is to say the images other than those of the members themselves, was set up in U2′s first era to take the onus off the band. Refreshingly, the cover concepts of “Boy,” “War” and “The Unforgettable Fire” were meant to compliment personal realities, album thematics and sonic landscapes, respectively (It’s notable that the sullen faced cover concepts of both “October” and “The Joshua Tree” were accompanied by charges in the press that the band was too earnest, too preachy, too presumptive or too remote).

Once the band had reached the pinnacle-popping point where all things famous must be destroyed, the band destroyed itself image-wise.

The sea change that was “Achtung Baby” has been given a lot of press and much has been written about how the band re-invented itself with the 1991 album. But the funny part is that musically they didn’t really change much at all. In the “U2 At The End Of The World,” author Flanagan recounts when Brian Eno joined the Hansa sessions.

“. . .he (Eno) is able to mediate between Edge’s ambitions and his old partner Lanois’s resistance. He goes to the board and shows how, by adding oddball vocal effects and a few jarring sounds, it’s possible to bring some of the more conventional material U2 has been fiddling with into fresh sonic territory.”

And that, of course, was all it was. Besides the lyrical subject matter, the melody line and Eno’s tinkering, “So Cruel” is essentially a sonic remake of “Mothers of the Disappeared—the moving closer of “The Joshua Tree.”

Visually however, the band was completely new. The album’s industrial clank and wheeze was christened Eastern European and that contention was bolstered by Corbjin’s “One” video and a stage set up that featured suspended Trabants. The band traded in their ripped jeans and suspenders for a look that actually could have been considered “cool.” Bono wore leather pants, mocked fellatio with a camera on stage, and became the sexiest rocker in the world for it.

The whole ruse is an amazing example of how powerful image is. Here’s a band, you’ll recall, post 1989’s “Rattle and Hum,” that was crucified by critics for 1) self-important grandstanding 2) uninspired cover songs 3) preachy social commentary. So what do they do? They return with twice as much self-important swagger, release uninspired covers as B-sides to their first couple singles and then conduct a tour complete with live video feeds from Sarajevo. But they did it, however, while wearing sunglasses and a smile—so the critics loved it.

The band changed during that era as America changed. In American pop culture, melodrama was replaced by irony. The surreal Rockwellian “Ronnie Ray-gun” years were replaced with “Slick Willy”’s debaucherous reign. On TV, the slapstick, good old boy gang at “Cheers” was replaced with the snarky, ironical gang of “Seinfeld.” In movies, the over-the-top teen melodramas starring Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald were replaced with over-the-top self-aware, ironical pieces starring Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder. U2 went through a similar metamorphosis and stayed ahead of the curve.

Moving forward, it was fascinating to watch them stumble with “Pop,” but then recover nicely, image-wise, with 1999’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” Just as America was swinging back to the right politically, just as John Ashcroft was covering the breasts on the ‘spirit of justice’ statue, so too was U2 forgetting the sexual tension and debauchery of its ‘90s music in favor of “Peace on Earth” and “Beautiful Day.” The burning America flag that disintegrated in the “Joshua Tree”-era “Bullet the Blue Sky” and the indignant “I can’t tell the difference between ABC News, ‘Hill Street Blues’ and a preacher on the old-time gospel hour” lyrical tangent was replaced with an American flag stitched inside a leather jacket and a number of semi-disturbing pictures of Bono chumming around with Orin Hatch, ultra-conservative senator Jesse Helms, Ashcroft and a number of other actual preacher’s from the old-time gospel hour.

So where does this leave “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” image-wise? Initial impressions indicate not much of a departure from “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” Through U2’s recent image work they’ve achieved a sort of massive middle ground—the rebellious spirit of the “Where The Streets Have No Name” video (“They’re shutting us down. . .”) has been replaced with the happy go lucky ramblings of a bunch of millionaires casually rolling on a flat bed down Madison Avenue. Everybody’s smiling. Bono seems to have found what he’d been looking for.

Stylistically, they’re very slick. No one’s taking any chances. The Edge’s look is timelessly cool and his choice of T-shirts is much more tasteful than good old #7 ever was. Larry’s finally ageing and looking more and more like a badass 50’s greaser everyday. While Bono’s cowboy hat is a little frat boy-ish for my liking, I do like the straight hair and tasteful threads. Even Adam Clayton looks smartly dressed and has stopped wearing eyeglasses.

In the end, while image has created the band as we know it, an examination of the images only reveals so much. Sure the band’s style choices have allowed U2 to become millionaires. Their constructed images have allowed them to musically equate themselves with history, be it the fall of the Berlin Wall or the fall of the Twin Towers. The spectacle they create is what allows critics to take pot shots at them and keeps the good people at “Entertainment Tonight” employed.

I think the band would be the first to point out that image is deception, however.

Close your eyes again and I’ll say it—U2. Now ignore what you see. Forget the fly shades and white flags and high-water pants and bushy blond afros and humongous television screens and heart-shaped stages and lights and speaker stacks and belly dancers and fans—everything. Make your mind black.

Got it? Good. Now que up a mental audio track—doesn’t matter which one—and listen.

The pictures have always meant nothing. That sound your head is what it has always been about.

For Your Consideration: U2′s Kind of Monster*

April 25, 2005


By Devlin Smith, Contributing Editor
2005.04

The other night I watched "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," the documentary about the making of Metallica’s "St. Anger" album. I am not a fan of Metallica, but am a huge music nerd and live for all those behind the scenes stories.

The film is fantastic and probably should have been nominated for a documentary Oscar, but that’s an argument for another forum. It’s amazingly honest, sometimes even painfully so. Throughout, the possibility that Metallica would implode is always there. Even more urgent is the possibility that three 20-plus-year friendships would cease to exist as well.

Watching "Some Kind of Monster," I had the same thought as when I watched Madonna’s "Truth or Dare" and other music-related documentaries—I thought about what an opportunity U2 blew when making "Rattle and Hum." As a soundtrack, "Rattle and Hum" is fantastic, as a movie it has its fair share of memorable moments, but as a tear-back-the-curtain look at a rock band in its prime, it failed.

The members of U2, over the years, have gained a reputation for being pretty guarded. Even though it feels like after more than 25 years we know all there is to know about Adam Clayton, Bono, Edge and Larry Mullen, Jr., truthfully, we don’t. Unlike the majority of rock and pop stars in the market today, the members of U2 have never invited magazines inside their homes, have never talked about the ups and downs of their personal relationships, haven’t sold their children’s birthday pictures to the highest bidder.

While certain aspects U2′s work at keeping the private life private are commendable (after all, do we really need to know what kind of bed sheets Bono and his wife Ali have?), the carefully drawn curtain does make it a little harder to fully understand U2′s art. After all, the inner workings of each member’s home life definitely influence the music they produce.

In "Some Kind of Monster," the home lives of lead singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich (the only members of Metallica with children) are shown without being exploited. Each has small children and showing that tender balancing act between being a dutiful father and rock god only makes the anger and frustration shown in the band’s music more understandable.

When "Rattle and Hum" was filmed, U2 was taking on America with "The Joshua Tree" tour. While both Bono and Edge were married at the time, only Edge had children (his two oldest girls were under 5 at the time). There is no mention in the film of any of the band members having any kind of personal lives, let alone that of the young father playing guitar. Being separated from his family, even if it was for short periods of time, must have weighed on Edge, must have influenced his nightly performances, but the movie doesn’t touch on it at all.

Though the personal lives for each of Metallica’s members are addressed, "Some Kind of Monster" mainly focuses on the personal relationships between the band members. Interspersing group therapy sessions with in-studio screaming matches and remembrances of what it was like when these guys first met as teenagers, the film does an excellent job of showing the past and present reasons for why each relationship is what it currently is.

"Rattle and Hum" did show that the members of U2 like each other (like when Mullen not-so-subtly mocks Clayton during an interview session) but never really addresses the hows and whys of the lifelong relationships within the band.

In the years since "Rattle and Hum" came out, U2 has made strides on revealing a little more about the people behind the band, most famously bringing Musician magazine editor Bill Flanagan into the studio during the recording of “Achtung Baby” and, later, on the road for its subsequent tour to make the book "U2: At the End of the World." The book is filled with great stories about the band members, told by the boys themselves, as well as their family and friends, while also documenting the ups and downs of making two albums and spending several years on the road.

Somehow, though, in the wake of "Some Kind of Monster," it just isn’t enough. While reading about Clayton holding his bass out to Bono in Hansa studios and asking, "You want to play it yourself? Go ahead," in "U2: At the End of the World" is definitely memorable, to actually see it would be indescribable. When reading a book or article, no matter how hard they try to disguise themselves, the writer is standing between you and the subject. With a documentary, however, you don’t have to depend on someone else describing the grimace on someone’s face or the hostile tone to their voice, you can see and hear those things for yourself. The entire process is much more immediate and personal.

I am a writer and a fan of books and magazines. But as much as I love reading interviews with Madonna, and will always buy any magazine when she is on the cover, it can’t compare to hearing and seeing her trying to explain to her father that the star of the show can get whatever tickets she wants in "Truth or Dare." Witnessing that interaction for myself gave me more understanding of Madonna and her relationship with her father than if I had read an article about that same interaction.

It’s easy to say that directors Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger lucked out when they walked into the studio to film a disintegrating Metallica possibly on its last legs for "Some Kind of Monster." The same can be said for "Truth or Dare’s" Alek Keshishian who probably couldn’t have imagined he’d be at Madonna’s side as she faced possible jail time, protest from the Vatican and life in the spotlight with one of the world’s most famous bachelors.

If U2 did agree to do another documentary, only this time to lay everything out on the table, would that filmmaker hit the same goldmine as previous music documentarians? Of course there are no guarantees, but I’m prone to think yes. With the making of every album and the undertaking of every tour, there are moments that easily become legend. While ensconced in the freezing-cold of Berlin’s Hansa Studio, did the members of U2 think their actions would become part of the band’s mythology? Probably not. I’m sure when he first accepted the assignment, Flanagan didn’t know he’d be spending nearly five years criss-crossing the world with U2 and end up writing what is considered by many to be the "U2 Bible."

From any situation can come an outstanding story. With U2, this possibility seems practically guaranteed. If only there’d been a camera crew capturing the making of "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," watching the band work with a string of producers before reuniting with Steve Lillywhite, seeing U2 work in Hanover Quay for what may be the last time. Certainly moments worthy of legend took place during the more than two years work on the album took place, unfortunately no one was there to capture it.

Even if there was somewhere there to capture the making of "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," it probably wouldn’t have turned out like "Some Kind of Monster." U2 has had camera crews in the studio before, including a documentary crew to capture the making of "Pride (In the Name of Love)" during "The Unforgettable Fire" sessions and a "60 Minutes" television crew watching the band create "Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of" from "All That You Can’t Leave Behind," but it felt like so little of the real U2 creative process and band dynamic was captured in either of those cases. I don’t think the band let it be captured.

As U2 reaches toward its third decade in the public eye, it may be time for its members to let their guard down slightly. I’m not suggesting an "At Home With…" spread in Hello! magazine or an episode of "Cribs," I know that wouldn’t be their style, but I think a well done, honest, insightful documentary could be. Someday, U2 will be no more, in addition to all the music, what better legacy to leave behind than a film record of exactly how these four men interacted, created and lived together? I know I’d cherish it.

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