August 23, 2013
U2 is a big band. Big sounds, big hits and let's face it, big egos. But even as somebody put off by Bono's nearly black hole-like level of self-absorption, the hundreds of U2 fans who were already crowding the parking lot of Angel Stadium of Anaheim at 8 a.m. June 17 made me wonder if all this time, I had been missing something. The grandiosity was difficult to deny and I arrived fully ready to be converted.
For a band this big, it would only make sense that outer space be the running theme for the night. There is nothing bigger, nothing more infinite than space and no stage setup in the universe as large and intricate than the one implored for the 360 Tour.
The 167-foot structure is nearly a spaceship itself, a four-pronged monster touching down to earth with a circular retractable screen suspended at its center.
Appropriately, the opening lines of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" provided the soundtrack as Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. took to the stage like a fleet of astronauts. I held my breath and prepared myself to be moved. Plunging headlong into a rapid fire of "Even Better Than the Real Thing," "I Will Follow" and "Get On Your Boots," the band's immense energy was admirable. The sound, however, was fuzzy at best and garbled at worse, a fact of outdoor venue life that can be attributed to the lack of acoustics. With nowhere to go but up, the harmonies rarely land on the ears of patrons and instead float up - coincidently into space.
But the talent that, before the release of The Joshua Tree, made U2 more successful at live performances than record sales, was apparent. Bono's voice retains its strength and more importantly its passion, making the case for U2's sociopolitical lyrics on tone quality alone. The Edge's distinct and forceful guitar backed by Mullen's driving beat and Clayton's bass was remarkable.
And yet, I felt nothing.
They flung themselves into "Mysterious Ways" followed by "Elevation," causing a distinct shift in the audience's attitude as fans began a somewhat collective bounce. Long-time manager Paul McGuinness was brought to the stage and Bono lead the crowd in "Happy Birthday," though not before musing about what the members of U2 might have been without McGuinness. Mullen: "A highway patrolman, but in Dublin." Clayton: "A handbag designer," Bono laughed, "very posh ones." He deemed The Edge a would-be city planner in light of the California Coastal Commission's recent rejection of the Malibu complex Edge proposed and finished by imagining himself as a theater critic.
My heart swelled momentarily there, but I found myself straining for meaning in Bono shouting, "Peace and love!" with a single white rose in hand as he stood on one of the arched bridges that stretched over the crowd. Then there was a twinge with the stark harmonica solo at the end of "All I Want Is You," but it was fleeting. I worried that I was still missing it.
It wasn't until Bono wondered aloud what somebody looking down on earth might say to us (assuming the 360 stage is visible from up there) that I really felt something, as Commander Mark Kelly beamed in from an International Space Station transmission, floating cut-out letters in zero gravity that read, "It's a Beautiful Day."
They went right into the song and before returning to "Space Oddity" with Kelly (married to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who continues recovery from the January 8 Tucson shooting) signing off with, "Tell my wife I love her very much - she knows." Although the feeling had more to do with feeling small in a great, wide galaxy and less to do with the music, it goes to reason that the performance is what helped me to arrive to my moment of feeling.
They plowed on with "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Zooropa," the Talking Heads' "Life During War Time," and a brief encounter with "Psycho Killer" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
A laundry list of dedications was made, most notably "Stay" to Chris Blackwell and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" to Maria Shriver. Bono spoke briefly about his causes - Amnesty International, Greenpeace, ONE - but left most of it up to the music, encoring with "One - United We Stand," "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me," "With or Without You," and "Moment of Surrender."
Lenny Kravitz opened at dusk to a mostly distracted crowd. But with sunglasses on and hat askew, he played like a headliner stacking up his hits and knocking them down, including "American Woman," "Fly Away" and "Let Love Rule," at which point he asked the disinterested to stand, reasoning, "If you can't stand up for love then what can you stand up for?" With the audience properly pumped he finished with "Are You Gonna Go My Way."
The larger-than-life aspect of the U2 360 Tour feels as if it's been meticulously constructed to show us just how big they are. But the big tour and the big attitude and the big crowd waiting all day for the show dwarfed the actual concert.
Especially with "The Claw" and all its mismatched appendages tacked soley to add to its height and poised so sinisterly above band members, they looked rather small. But maybe that was the intention. To show how small we all are and prove that no matter how "big" U2 is, it's just a band.