U2 Live in Los Angeles, 5/26/2015

Note: This is a concert review. I additionally penned an op-ed for The Stream, which you can read here.

U2 is a band named for an airplane that flew at the ultra-high altitude of 70,000 feet. The group, like its namesake, has always had an ambition to fly higher than any of their competitors. Renowned for their spectacular live shows, lead singer Paul Hewson (k/a “Bono”), guitarist Dave Evans (k/a “The Edge”), bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., have indeed achieved the rarified air that characterizes the airplane. Four decades after forming the band in high school they still sell out arenas and stadiums while performing with the exact same quartet with which they began on the north side of Dublin. They easily hold the title for longest lasting top-tier rock-and-roll band. *

* There are, of course, complex variables at play here. My criteria are 1) Not a single lineup change (Rolling Stones out), 2) No lengthy break or hiatus, and 3) Continual musical relevance (e.g., new albums/not playing “throwback” shows at casinos in Wendover, Nevada.)

Their last tour, U2360, was a stadium affair that set the record for the highest grossing concert tour of all time. The public seemed to agree that just as impressive as the gigantic stage set was the impressive music performed by four old Irish friends.

Several weeks ago they launched their new tour, Innocence+Experience, in Vancouver, British Columbia. After the massive undertaking of the 360 Tour, the band “scaled back” to doing indoor arenas this time around. I took in the show on its seventh date, the first of six Los Angeles concerts at The Forum in Inglewood. I do not plan to give a blow-by-blow of every song, but who knows? I just might.

There is no opening act to the U2 I+E Tour. This is profoundly unusual. No attempt to get the crowd fired up or prepared for their grand entrance. They are confident they’ll get them fired up without any help. The tickets say the show is at 7:30, but apparently half the people in LA know that means the band will be on at 9:00. By 8:30 half the seats aren’t filled. Upon a trip to the restroom I discover mobs of people in the concessions area—they’re here, just not in their seats.

The staging is dramatic. In a large, oblong space they have a main stage at one end, a narrow catwalk across the entire floor, ending on a smaller, rounded “B” stage. Hanging over the walkway is a large transparent curtain that, as we discover, turns out to be a state-of-the-art video screen and elevated catwalk for a “fourth” stage. The engineering is impressive, with speaker arrays hung at consistent intervals around the entire circumference of the room. U2 is beyond the days of stacking giant speakers at one end of the room and blasting it to the other. They want consistent sound for everyone in the hall. Above the main stage hangs a single illuminated lightbulb. The show will begin there, underneath a bare bulb where the band had its nascent beginnings.

Light music is playing. Finally, at about five minutes before the start, the sound doubles in volume. It gets everyone’s attention. The crowd stirs and cheers. As the final song of the intro playlist ends, all the lights go out. Then the lone sound of Bono’s voice erupts (far louder still) from the speakers as he is illuminated on the B-Stage, shouting the “Oh-oh-oh” sequence to the beginning of their latest album, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone).” The crowd knows the tune and begins singing back. After three or four call-and-responses from the crowd as Bono swaggers his way to the main stage, The Edge’s thunderous guitar jolts all the cobwebs of boredom out of the room. The electricity is palpable. Larry’s snare drum is like gunshots in time, one after the other. And, just like that, U2 is taking flight…

The first four songs are visceral. That’s the only way to describe it. The boys are playing as they did back in the smoky clubs in the late 1970s. Bono throws water from a bottle on the crowd with abandon. Edge slashes the guitar like he’s trying to saw through it with his guitar pick. Adam runs around, his giant bass swinging like… well, let’s just say he’s got swagger. Larry sits…well, emotionless as he ever was, the chiseled jaw of a human metronome, pounding out the rhythm. The costumes are appropriate to the era the songs recall: Edge has a leather jacket with fringe, replaced later with his signature t-shirt. Bono is in leather, too, for this “innocence” part of the show, to be replaced with a sport coat (?) for the experience half—I do believe that’s a first for him.

“The Miracle” seamlessly moves to “The Electric Co.”, a song from their very first album. Then on to “Vertigo,” back to “I Will Follow,” U2’s first American hit. Recent-ancient-recent-ancient is the order. And nothing is out of place. It all sounds energetic, alive, incredibly fresh and relevant.

They catch their breath for a moment while Bono waxes eloquently about this little retrospective into their past and his mother, for whom he wrote the next song, “Iris.” The screen finally lights up with an old sepia-toned video of her, and he begins to stray into the narrow catwalk stage. “Iris” is a terrific song, but it is clear at this point that the LA crowd is not as familiar with the words (they’ve been singing along up until now). Of course, I’m thinking: how hard is it to sing “Hold me close?” One of the things I’d noticed about the new U2 album Songs of Innocence is how, it seems to me, they’ve highlighted Adam Clayton more than ever before. The bass lines on “Iris” are terrific, and I was hoping the low end wouldn’t get lost live. Not to worry: I heard Adam’s bass more clearly than I ever have before at a live U2 show. I will not mention Edge’s guitar much in this review because there is nothing unusual to mention. The signal was hot, he played amazingly, and the sound was lush and gorgeous. 

The screen drops down and Bono walks up stairs to a catwalk midway up. They kick off “Cedarwood Road,” and the digital pyrotechnics take the breath away. Bono virtually walks along his (moving) childhood street, the screen transparent enough that when he is spotlighted you can see him clearly. Amazing choreography for a great song.

The only real trouble spot (if you can call it that) with this show starts with the next selection, “Song For Someone.” “Cedarwood Road” seems like an upbeat tune because of the driving guitar on the verse/chorus transition, but it isn’t actually upbeat in reality. When “Song for Someone” kicked off it felt very much like another slow song. And over half the people with seats sat down. The energy drive of the first five songs just…ended. Those two songs shouldn’t be done back to back, and I suspect U2’s lifelong friend Gavin Friday sat there (as I know he does from other media reports) making serious notes of it.

But the lethargy didn’t last long. As the closing notes of “Song for Someone” ended, the familiar military snare drum of one of U2’s most iconic songs erupted. It was quite deafening, actually. Larry had switched to a mobile snare he wore with a harness and starting banging out the beat to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as he walked to the middle of the walkway. The whole band met out there at equal intervals, and played a fairly stripped down, slightly slower rendition of the song. The sheer familiarity of it got the crowd right back to the feet and into it. 

“Raised by Wolves” is an intense song about an IRA bombing in Dublin, and they made good use of the screen to commemorate the loss of 33 people in a senseless act of violence. “Justice for the Forgotten” were the words above their pictures. One of the things I love about the song is that Edge plays a fairly new guitar effect and different (for him) technique on the chorus, one that seems to need a rhythm guitar underneath it. I was right. It does seem to need a rhythm guitar underneath it, but to my ears U2 didn’t artificially apply it.*

* And this is a good place to stop and say this: in the past U2 has made plenty of use of “loops” and backing tracks during their live shows to “fill” the songs the way they sound on the records. This was kept to a very-much-surprising minimum in this concert. Aside from the needed keyboards at the beginning of “Streets” and maybe a few other things, there wasn’t much. The four were, frankly, on their own in this show.

They finished the first set with “End of the World,” U2’s classic song sung from the perspective of Judas Iscariot. Edge’s final guitar solo combined with Larry’s drums brought the house down. Just an awesome sound. Then the lights went down and the screen lit up for the intermission, brought to us by the late great Johnny Cash. 

Yes, they played the entirety of “The Wanderer,” a somewhat more obscure U2 track from the Zooropa album, on which Mr. Cash supplied the vocals. Somehow they had video of Johnny singing it, and digitized it in a cool pixelated format so that it was as though Cash was singing it to us while we waited for the band to come back on. Very cool.

As soon as the last notes of that ended, Part Two opened up with a sadly overlooked U2 song. I was delighted to hear the opening notes of “Invisible.” They had released the single on Super Bowl Sunday 2014 as a free download on iTunes, but it didn’t seem to get a lot of popular attraction. I think the song is pure gold: “It’s like the room just cleared of smoke / I didn’t even want the heart you broke / it’s yours to keep / you just might need one…” Anyway, I loved it, even though the crowd didn’t seem as familiar with it as I was.

They solved that unfamiliarity problem by then kicking in to “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and then “Mysterious Ways” from the Achtung Baby album. Universally recognizable songs. On the latter the whole band moved to the “B Stage” and Larry played an upright percussion kit. Nothing was lost in that percussion transition, amazingly enough to me.  

* Maybe—maybe—this is where drum “loops” are fooling me. But hey, if they fooled me, they did the trick!

Then they played a song I knew would be on the setlist: “California (There Is No End to Love)” from the most recent album. I knew they wouldn’t come to LA and neglect to sing that! Excellently done, and I just love Edge’s guitar solo on that. He plays so effortlessly that I know it isn’t effortless—the band rented an arena in Vancouver and rehearsed every note of this show for an entire month. That’s effort, and it pays off in live performance.

Bono discovers * in the audience a “Bono Lookalike” and brings him on stage. Seriously, the guy headlines a tribute band called “Hollywood U2.” Bono has the guy livestream the band on the Internet with a cellphone during “The Sweetest Thing,” and even hands over the mic to him for awhile to take a turn at the piano. Hollywood Bono’s voice isn’t half bad!

* Nothing is ever truly “discovered” in these shows. I know this because once before a U2 performance I was watching the stage crew finalizing things. A stage manager came out and tape-measured the distance from Edge’s microphone to the floor to get the exact height. Nothing is left to chance.

Bono and Edge do a stripped-down “Every Breaking Wave.” It is beautiful with just Edge on the piano and Bono on the microphone. Bono’s voice is starting to crack a bit; high register for him and I notice him grab more and more water as this thing moves on.

Finally, “Bullet the Blue Sky.” I don’t know this for sure, but I believe that along with “Where the Streets Have No Name,” this is the only other song that has consistently appeared on every single live U2 setlist since its release. And why not? It’s the quintessential all-purpose political tune, which Bono has used to chastise American foreign policy, terrorism, gun proliferation, you name it. This evening it appears the target was race in America, a subject the band knows very little about. But that’s never been a problem before, so why start having doubts now after forty years? Musically, it was as gloriously gut-punching as I expected. What I didn’t expect was Bono’s near-complete re-write of the final verse to crow-bar it into his chosen narrative. I couldn’t repeat it to you after one hearing, but I can tell you the poetry was excellent. He then segued into a snippet of their song for the film Gangs of New York, “The Hands That Built America.”

It was, as intended, a real downer. Bono and company loves America, which is why they criticize her. I don’t have a problem with that; I just wish he chose different topics and had better and more informed views on the ones he does choose. And on this occasion he chose a topic with which I wholeheartedly disagree and about which I write elsewhere so as to not distract from this concert review. Suffice it to say, after delivering a soliloquy on same-sex marriage the band played “Pride (In The Name of Love). That combination practically wrote itself, I realize. But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.

The band followed with “Beautiful Day,” which lifted my mood a bit, and closed out the set with “With or Without You,” always a crowd favorite. Then Bono did what he always does and says, “Thank you! Good night!” when he and everyone else very well knows this is not the end of the night.

The final set began with “City of Blinding Lights,” which contains some of my favorite lyrics: “The more you see the less you know / the less you find out as you go / I knew much more then / than I do now.” They moved into a video presentation about HIV relief and Africa and U2’s efforts to supply drugs that prevent the transmission from mothers to infants. They played a snippet from Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” which led into the greatest rock song * ever written and performed: “Where The Streets Have No Name.”

* Fun fact: An automobile company once approached to band wanting to purchase the rights to the song for TV commercials. They offered a lot of money, and this was the Joshua Tree days; the guys didn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank. They discussed it amongst themselves and agreed: this was the ONE song they could count on. The ONE song that could turn around a bad show or lousy audience from the very first notes. They did not want their ONE song to become “the TV commercial.” They turned it down.

What can I say about “Streets”? It is one of the finest electric guitar riffs ever created, paired with a spine-chilling bass progression, incredible percussion, and passionate lyrics and vocals. It is the perfect song. I know of no other song that can get a stadium full of people to euphoric levels faster than “Streets.” There is a reason U2 performs it at every concert. Every single one. Lots of things are improperly given the moniker “classic,” but this isn’t one of them. 

They closed the concert with “One,” but I have to say that after Bono’s divisive political sermon previously at this concert, I didn’t feel included in the longing for heaven the way I have been in the past. I felt pretty left out of this particular group hug. I give him a lot of leeway on the political stuff, but he went a catwalk too far for me. 

I was saddened to hear that just hours after this concert long time U2 tour manager Dennis Sheehan suffered a fatal heart attack in his hotel room in LA. The following night the heartbroken band played in his honor, and they fittingly chose their old show closing: “40,” taken directly from Psalm 40. I would have preferred that one. My condolences to the entire U2 family.   

Brian Mattson