By Roy Trakin.
U2 – The Forum, L.A – Wednesday May 27, 2015
Say what you want about their ill-fated strategy of gifting smartphone users with their last album – and what kind of perverted tech-era thinking declares a gift an invasion of privacy – but U2 mark the last among the generation of rock bands to whom the music still holds some spiritual, cultural, even, political, meaning.
Their first tour in four years plays off the title of that last album, Songs of Innocence – and its proposed bookend Songs of Experience – with a two-pronged approach that reflects the set list’s mix of past and present, with a hopeful glimpse at the future.
For the first of five consecutive nights at this refurbished venue – marred unfortunately by the sudden, post-show death of their longtime road manager Dennis Sheehan in his hotel room– the stage set unveiled itself over the first few songs.
Bifurcated by a see-through, wide-screen digital wall that ran the length of the side of the arena, the main stage was connected to another platform at the rear by a pair of parallel catwalks on which the band paraded or lined up to play in a row, often interacting with their own projected live or programmed images as if in a movie.
The performance itself takes off from the album’s themes, a now-peroxide-blonde Bono – under a single naked swaying light bulb – is transported back to his childhood bedroom, Kraftwerk and The Clash album posters on the walls to sing “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” – a nod to the New York punk which both inspired him and serves as a leitmotif for the evening (the band is played on by Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power,” while Television’s “Marquee Moon” was heard on the pre-show soundtrack), capturing that moment when he “heard a song that made some sense out of the world.”
“We’re a band from the north side of Dublin, called U2,” Bono has been understating by way of introduction to their debut album Boy’s rather obscure cut “Electric Co.,” which incorporates snippets from “Send in the Clowns,” slyly poking fun at themselves, and “I Can See for Miles.”
Another nod to the Ramones is next, with “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio” serving as an intro to the “Uno, dos, tres, catorce” of “Vertigo,” simple fluorescent lights lining the stage as The Edge –filling up the room with his sound thanks to the 50-some odd speakers strategically placed around the arena – does a couple of Townshend windmills, as Bono makes like he’s swimming, with one of several nods to (new?) waves in both gestures and image.
The Edge pulls out his parallelogram-shaped guitar for a soaring “I Will Follow,” as Bono playfully raises his hands in the air and offers: “We surrender to you god that gave us this music.” He talks about the death of his mom and describes the song as “a suicide note from a kid who wanted to follow his mother to the grave,” before tackling another song for her, “Iris (Hold Me Close),” in which the refrain is a moving, “I’ve got your life inside of me.” The giant screen now shows astrological constellations, and the site of a bare-chested boy running, superimposed over the singer spinning, a touching juxtaposition.
Bono appears to be walking down the on-screen suburban street lined with identical houses for the childhood memories of “Cedarwood Road,” The Edge’s heavy metal thrumming on the catwalk below forming yet another brilliant counterpoint.
A triptych of Bono’s bedroom, kitchen and living room forms the visual backdrop for “Song for Someone,” which he wrote “[as]an 18-year-old… trying to impress [his future wife]Alison Stewart,” crooning, “And there is a light, don’t let it go out.”
From childhood to trauma, the band combining, as they do throughout the show, two songs – one old, one new – about the same theme in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” followed by “Raised by Wolves,” both about growing up in an Ireland surrounded by violence, the band captured playing live as negative black and white figures, the images capturing those who died in the terrorist bomb blast described by the latter, having its profound effect on an adolescent Bono.
An apocalyptic “Until the End of the World” finds Bono on the far side, isolated from the rest of the band, playfully spitting water out of his mouth like a fountain at the crowd. The theme of halves returns as the first part of the show ends with a video of Johnny Cash singing “The Wanderer” from the band’s Zooropa album.
The second half of the show goes from “Invisible” to “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” the computer-enhanced imagery showing the band’s visages breaking down into circular molecules and reforming, the music with its spaghetti-western feel.
Four mirror balls reflect light back into the crowd for “Mysterious Ways,” which interpolates excerpts from both “Burning Down the House” and “Young Americans,” while “California (There Is No End to Love),” offers a shout-out to Brian Wilson. Bono suddenly plucks a doppelganger from the audience – a ringer who turns out to be Hollywood U2 tribute band singer Joe Hier –and hands him the mic for “The Sweetest Thing,” which lived up to its name, as Bono accompanies him on piano.
“Only in America,” mock-drawls the former Mr. Vox, joined by Edge on piano of “Every Breaking Wave,” another new song that fit seamlessly into the set, a plea not to just blindly follow the latest trend, a directive this show most certainly embodies.
A pair of songs aimed at America’s ills – illustrated with shots of Occupy Wall Street and dollar bills – follow in a searing “Bullet the Blue Sky,” The Edge’s snarling slide guitar leading the way. “America’s an idea still being born, still being shaped,” says Bono before launching into the Martin Luther King paean, “Pride (in the Name of Love),” praising Ireland’s recent gay marriage legislation, asking for the “spirit of non-violence and the spirit of love” in the wake of events in Ferguson and Baltimore.
After that, “Beautiful Day” serves as a rousing palate-cleanser leading into the benediction of “With or Without You,” which could just as easily be referring to their rabid fans as God Himself.
The two-and-a-half hour show’s three-song encore starts with “City of Blinding Lights,” the post-911 homage to New York City. “Stop beating yourself up America,” says Bono, still spry and seemingly none the worse for wear after his Central Park bike accident except for being unable to play guitar. It’s his way of thanking us for this country’s donations to his (RED) initiative to wipe out AIDS “with two little pills,” prefacing a pointed cover of “Mother and Child Reunion” bringing the theme of maternal-ism full circle.
The closing “Where the Streets Have No Name,” because of its video, I’ll always associate with a now-burgeoning downtown Los Angeles, a suitable finale to another U2 performance that may only be judged workmanlike for a band who keep raising the bar for the arena-rock experience. Don’t make the mistake of looking this gift horse in the mouth. Give them all a great big kiss instead.