Before U2 hit the stage for night two of their five-night run at the Forum on Wednesday, there were murmurs in the crowd that this wouldn’t be like any of the shows on the mostly well-received tour. Early that morning, the band’s longtime tour manager Dennis Sheehan died, leaving fans wondering how the group would pay tribute to their fallen friend. After four feverish songs, the crowd had their answer.
Bono started off the night solemnly but engagingly, sharing a story about how he and his bandmates dressed up as Led Zeppelin (whom Sheehan tour managed previously) at their late friend's last birthday. True or false, it set the tone for a workman-like performance that really didn't hit its stride until towards the end of the first batch of songs that were from their latest collection, Songs of Innocence.
See also: More photos of U2 at the Forum
Like most U2 fans, I have a long and somewhat complicated history with the band. I remember being introduced to them by my parents when they first played The Joshua Tree on cassette. But between the ZOO TV tour and the videos that accompanied Zooropa, as a young grunge fan, I quickly dismissed U2 as a cartoonish sideshow.
It wasn’t until one of my close friends implored me to explore Pop, of all albums, that I finally gave them a chance. He preached how impressive “Discotheque” and Pop were, and nearly 20 years later, the album's dance music elements, strangely, have matured well.
Despite my newfound appreciation for U2, the PopMart tour was too expensive for a teenager to scrounge up enough money to check out, so I skipped it. But that tour proved to be a pivotal point in the band’s career. Afterward, they eschewed spectacle and re-embraced substance on All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The result, as seen on the Elevation tour, was a sharper band who regained the trust of critics and fans without feeling the need to be over-the-top.
I saw two shows on Elevation back in 2001 — in East Rutherford, N.J. (I saw this with the aforementioned friend), and Chicago — and despite a similar set list, the band was impressive on both nights for different reasons. That Chicago show was especially memorable since they were the first major band to tour after 9/11. The performance carried a desperate urgency that reflected that wounded nature of this country. When America needed consoling, U2 was there to lift it up. That remains one of the best and most honest shows I’ve ever seen by any band.
In the years that followed, my interested in the band waned. Beginning with their 2004 iPod commercial, hilariously lampooned on South Park, U2 was becoming the caricature that they themselves had mocked on the ZOO TV tour as too nauseatingly self-righteous for its own good. Following Elevation, the Vertigo tour gradually moved from arenas to large stadiums, a trend which which continued with U2 360, their most ambitious (and financially successful) tour.
As U2 returned to excess, I figured that they wouldn’t get much better than the Elevation tour in terms of their live show, and I’d be better served staying home and watching it on Blu-ray.
Although U2 360 played to every major football (and futbol) stadium in the world, for myself and many fans, there was something missing. While the live show became more of a spectacle, the band's songwriting on No Line on the Horizon had started to slip, and an aura of desperation hovered over the Irishmen as they seemingly strained to stay relevant. For U2, staying cool and hip had apparently started to outweigh the importance of writing the next great rock record.
Instead of braving the Rose Bowl crowd (and parking lot), I stayed home again. The nearly 100,000 in attendance on that late October 2009 night likely disagree, but to me, it seemed like U2 had become too big too fail. It bummed me out to think they might never return to the relatively accessible arena setting that had made the Elevation tour so enjoyable.
As the group became the butt of jokes, mostly due to their own misunderstanding of their importance, it was easy to dismiss them and forget that the band’s electric showmanship, not their over-the-top productions, had made them the biggest band in the world.
Say what you want about the much-maligned rollout of Songs of Innocence and the band’s Spinal Tap-esque luck as of late; the quartet remains one of the most powerful live acts in the business. After playing hundreds of stadiums, they can make an arena seem cozy. And unlike the relatively stripped-down production of Elevation or even Vertigo, U2's latest tour proves that they’re able to bring stunning stadium effects into an arena setting.
For many fans, the Innocence + Experience tour is the closest they’ll get to seeing U2 in a club setting (apart from those lucky fans going to tonight’s gig at the Roxy). The Forum can sometimes be a hollow, unforgiving venue, but it was the right size to showcase the mesmerizing LED screens and raised catwalk serving as a third stage. In a stadium setting, fans probably wouldn't have felt connected to a performance that touched on the raw wounds of the band’s personal past — most notably the Irish troubles of the 1970s and '80s.
As the night wore on, U2 reminded the crowd that unlike other rock veterans with massive stage productions, they’re able to call a song audible seamlessly. Adding the anthemic “Bad” to the end of the main set was a highlight. Bono can’t quite belt out those high notes like he did in Rattle and Hum, but he was pretty damn close.
This tour could be the beginning of the end for U2, but not in the way people expect. At this point in their career, they can still write pretty good rock songs, but their days as a hit-making band are probably over. As a live band, however, they’ve manage to roll back the years instead of veering onto Rolling Stones Lane as the world’s greatest nostalgia act. Bono may not move like Jagger, and the Edge isn’t as swashbuckling as Richards. But as a unit, powered by the underrated rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr., the band feels as complete as it did at the beginning of the century.
It was great to hear the bare-bones intensity of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and the evening’s surprise set closer “40,” which was dedicated to the memory of Sheehan (as was the rest the night and tour). Granted, the theatrical stage effects probably don't leave much wiggle room in the set list, but even so, it would have been an added bonus (for me, anyway) to a few hear deep rarities from Zooropa.
Nothing could quite recapture the rawness of seeing them on the Elevation tour. But for a band that’s desperate to remain important, U2 is doing its best to ensure that it never becomes just another nostalgia act.