U2 at the Rose Bowl: Concert Porn for the Masses

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By Randall Roberts in Last Night, LA Weekly

It was cool. It was a big Happening with flashing lights, lots of color, inspiration, 100,000 people screaming along in unison, moved by the pure ... spectacle of it. If we were in North Korea, these songs would have been about the Supreme Leader and we would have all been flashing colored placards in unison rather than putting on masks of Aung San Suu Kyi or waving our cell phones in the air. The comparison fails for any number of reasons, but it is true that when you stick this many people with a shared enthusiasm into the same space, the power of it is overwhelming -- and can be a little scary.

But we're in America at the gosh dang Rose Bowl, so the big-ticket mass happening is not trippy North Korean dancers but an Irish rock band with a charismatic lead singer, beautifully enormous love songs, a BlackBerry sponsorship and a lot of money to put on a high-tech power sucking extravaganza that delivers a noble and honest message of peace. Songs from the heart, to the People, for the People. To heal them. To inspire them. Everything is going to be all right.

Plus, we need our larger-than-life Rock Stars (don't we?), and if that's the case, it may as well be Bono.

Cynicism aside, it's true, actually. Even if some of us prefer our lead singers with a little more natural-born swagger, Bono is a very effective messenger: handsome, tuneful, personable, dedicated, smart, and funny (he described himself last night as a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito with a little bit of Dennis Hopper tossed in, which isn't too far from the truth). What he lacks in funk, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm. Bono thinks BIG. He thinks BEAUTIFUL -- which is the noblest of causes -- and somehow avoids the platitudinal. Barely.

Maybe it's the sunglasses. They exude detached gravitas. Standing in a circle-within-a-circle stage beneath a four-legged spider thingy that looked like the main terminal at LAX (U2 was situated where the luggage pick-up is), Bono controlled the Rose Bowl. He was a master of a grand human orchestra. He lifted an arm, the masses lifted an arm. He waved it in the air, they waved it. He demanded they sing an entire verse of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and they sang it pitch-perfect (more-or-less). He ran laps around the vast track that surrounded the stage, which added an extra dimension of U2 access, and we were impressed. He sang. He SANG. HE SANG!

Up above, a 360-degree video screen projected images of the band performing. It served as an eye magnet. Despite that the band was right there on stage in real life, our eyes were drawn to the video screen, which offered so much movement and eye-candy. One of the things, in fact, that U2 realizes is that onstage they aren't really naturally charismatic. Without all the bells and whistles, the band kind of stand there and play their instruments. Adam Clayton is no Flea, as far as getting into it is concerned. The Edge's personality is to stand in the shadow of Bono. Larry Mullin, Jr. is a great rock drummer, one of the best ever, but he's sitting there busy. And Bono is more a football coach than a choreographer. He delivers his songs with more muscle than grace -- though he can be incredibly graceful, indeed -- and where a Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler, Allison Mossheart or Thom Yorke get into bona fide grooves, Bono is, in comparison, more stiff.

So with all that shit going on visually, it's hard to concentrate on the music. The accordion-bending jumbo video tube was amazing. Movie cameras were everywhere filming everything. Pixilated chaos on a grand scale. So much visual stimuli that the A.D.D. among us can find it really tough to let the music sink in. At a little club it's easier, or at a mid-level theater. But in a football stadium it felt like the information that everyone else was receiving from the Big Spider was being sent on a frequency that barely made it all the way to my pleasure receptors. Like listening to Miami bass on a transistor radio.

But when the songs hit, they hit. "Beautiful Day," one of the band's best, was thrilling, this primal burst of glorious enthusiastic momentum wrapped in a Zen message and one of the best choruses in rock. Last night it got me teary-eyed, a crystalline bullet into said pleasure dome. When Bono ran through the images in his imagination, the Rose Bowl was one big vessel of wonder:

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the Bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors came out

They kept coming. "Stuck in a Moment" was done acoustically, and exuded a grand magic. "The Unforgettable Fire" is one of my favorite U2 songs, this vast, open prairie of guitars and desire that carried through the Bowl like a surfer's perfect wave. "Walk On," which Bono dedicated to imprisoned Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was inspiring in all the right ways. "Where the Streets Have No Name" was pure power, the solid kind created by four musicians who have been playing rock & roll for the past 35 years and who are so in tune with each others' rhythms that they are, nearly literally, One.

At their worst, U2 is all drive and no swagger. It's all inspiration without any gritty sweatiness. They're trying so damn hard that at times the rock gets lost inside the message. Great musicians, all of them. But there's something that's just so damned earnest about them, and that earnestness serves as a prophylactic. When I want to really rock, I want some dick and pussy action. I want Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith. But U2, bless their heart, always reach for the rubber.

Maybe it comes down to something as simple as this: Among the many different ways one can separate people into groups is this: arena/stadium people; and club people. Some like to gather with thousands and become as one, enjoy music concerts as sporting events; others like be in the same room breathing the same air and drinking the same drinks, can only imagine truly losing oneself in the music when they can feel the heat of the amps. The distance, both physical and metaphorical, is too great. It's like the difference between watching porno and fucking. Porno happens on a screen, and you are very far away from the object of your desire. Fucking ... well, we all know what fucking entails.

And if the U2 show at the Rose Bowl was like watching porno and not fucking, well, it was an amazing production that most certainly induced a lot of big O's. A hundred-thousand of them, in fact, give or take.

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Note: The Black Eyed Peas opened. We'll have a separate write-up on their performance for tomorrow morning, but we'll say this: they were (gulp) really good, and their performance included a cameo by Slash.

U2 at the Rose Bowl Setlist

Breathe
Get On Your Boots
Magnificent
Mysterious Ways
Beautiful Day (with a few lines from In God's Country)
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, with coda of Stand By Me,
Stuck In A Moment (acoustic guitar version)
No Line On The Horizon,
Elevation,
In A Little While (last verse spoken by an astronaut in the International Space Station),
Unknown Caller,
Until the End of the World
The Unforgettable Fire
City of Blinding Lights,
Vertigo,
I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight
Sunday Bloody Sunday,
MLK (Martin Luther King tribute),
Walk On (Aung San Suu Kyi tribute) with Never Walk Alone snippet

Desmond Tutu recorded message

Encore:

One
Amazing Grace
Where the Streets Have No Name
Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
With or Without You
Moment of Surrender

© 2009 Village Voice Media All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on October 26, 2009 6:51 PM.

U2 360 Confirms 2010 North American Tour Dates was the previous entry in this blog.

Live review: U2's 360 Tour at the Rose Bowl is the next entry in this blog.

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