The sad news that spread the morning after U2‘s first of five concerts at the Forum in Los Angeles was that their long-time tour manager, Dennis Sheehan, had died in his hotel room during the night. Any comments of the band’s recent run of bad luck, from their backlash-inducing album release of Songs of Innocence where they forced it into the homes of iPhone users to Bono’s serious bicycle accident to The Edge’s fall off the stage on the Songs of Innocence + Experience Tour opener, has now gone beyond what anyone should make light. The band and its crew are undoubtably devastated.
But last night, none of these past trials mattered. A sold out crowd of more than 17,000, most of whom were likely stoked to get a free U2 album last year, packed the room and hung on every song, both new and old, that U2 had to offer. This is a feat that will be repeated in arenas around the world for runs similar to Los Angeles’, a seemingly scaled back trek on their typical stadium shows. But U2 never seemed scaled back last night; they never seemed to be the act humbled by the circumstances of the last year. Instead, U2 was every bit the brash, boisterous, larger-than-life rock stars fans would expect, or even hope for. On a stage this big, that is what plays, and U2 knows what plays. Having a pity party for themselves was never in the cards.
Instead, like every great show or meal or piece of art, the Songs of Innocence + Experience Tour has a story to tell, with U2’s four members looking to connect specifically with the city they are present in, while frontman Bono in particular recalls the progression from his childhood to becoming a rock star. Early in the set, Bono commented that no city has been kinder to the band than L.A., recalling the early push KROQ gave “I Will Follow” after performing a knockout rendition of that song. The comment might have seemed like he was merely shining on the crowd if the main set didn’t end as it did. After a huge audience singalong of “With or Without You”, that Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. concluded with a bow, Bono repeated under his breath, “no city has been kinder.”
And maybe that clues in to some of the beauty in U2’s grandeur. The group wouldn’t shy away from the huge gestures, whether that meant Bono praying on his knees at one point to dedicating “Pride (In the Name of Love)” to their country people that went to the polls in record numbers last week to legalize gay marriage (Bono redubbed the song “Gay Pride (In the Name of Love)”). Juxtaposing these moments –and journeys inside the giant L.E.D. screens while images of joshua trees, the streets of Dublin, or, most commonly, themselves flashed gigantic– with moments of intimacy is something that not every band can pull off. The way the stage was configured, with a catwalk bisecting the arena and ending with a satellite stage, brought the fans in the highest rafters close enough to the action to create a feeling of a much smaller room.
But really, U2 felt intimate because they were personal with the large audience and always in the moment. Early set standout “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was performed with the entire band in a row on the catwalk, with drummer Mullen only manning a single snare. Likewise, a glorious “Sweetest Thing” was played in the round on the satellite stage, with a fan, dressed up like Bono and introducing himself as “Hollywood U2,” providing videographer duties for all to witness on the giant screen. The smiles on the band’s faces as “Hollywood U2” hit some high notes could not be faked, nor could Bono’s request for the fan to not “pull an Edge” and fall off the stage.
And while it was the tried and true that provided the biggest thrills of the night, like an intense, moving “Bullet in the Blue Sky” and an explosive “Beautiful Day”, the band’s desire to showcase their latest release did pay off. From Bono entering the L.E.D. screens for “Cedarwood Road” to powerful turns on “Iris (Hold Me Close)” and “Raised by Wolves”, these recent tracks didn’t play for the drag that some might expect, and even argued that perhaps the most recent U2 output was given an unfair shake from critics more interested in attacking the new album’s release method than the actual songs. But that, like the Edge’s fall or Bono’s accident, are moot points when surrounded by the visual and sonic spectacle that U2 is putting out there in 2015. Last night will forever be marred by what happened this morning, but for the 17,000+ Los Angeles fans, it was the profound musical experience that the band has prided itself on for decades.
The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
The Electric Co.
I Will Follow
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Song for Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Raised by Wolves
Until the End of the World
Even Better Than the Real Thing
California (There Is No End to Love)
Every Breaking Wave
Bullet the Blue Sky
Pride (In the Name of Love)
With or Without You
City of Blinding Lights
Where the Streets Have No Name