To the question of whether Wednesday night’s U2 show was demonstrably more emotional than usual in response to the death that morning of longtime tour manager Dennis Sheehan, you’d almost have to ask: How would you know, exactly? If the Stones long ago locked down the phrase “world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band,” U2 is the world’s most heart-on-sleeve rock outfit, at least in the heavyweight division. And at the risk of sounding irreverent, Bono already sees dead people on a nightly basis. The memory of his late mother and of the victims of the troubles in Ireland, function as running themes through almost every set list they’ve ever done. Even a fresher intimation of mortality isn’t going to totally transform the character of a U2 show: They’re already most of the way there.
But they got a little further at Wednesday’s Forum show in Los Angeles (the second of four nights there). Sheehan’s death wasn’t dwelled upon at length, but did become the focus of two monologues, one funny, one more touching. The last of these recollections preceded the final encore number, as Bono recalled: “We made a live album way back when… called Under a Blood Red Sky. We used to end the show with ‘40.’ And whatever happened that night (at Red Rocks), nobody was singing the refrain. So we were backstage just trying to figure out what the hell was going on and trying to make it happen. We just heard this lone voice, this single voice, singing ‘How long to sing this song’ — a light voice, beautiful tremolo. And it was the voice of Dennis Sheehan, trying to get everyone to sing, which they did. So we dedicate this song… in fact we dedicate the night. in fact we dedicate our whole tour to the very vivid memory of Dennis Sheehan: St. Dennis of Dublin, as he’s known around here.”
And with that, instead of “One” or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the songs they’ve used to close other shows on the tour, they performed “40” for only the second time since 2005, complete with old-fashioned one-by-one walk-off into the crowd. There was a good reason the band had sent it into permanent retirement — once their most venerated live warhorse, it’d come to seem as old as the psalm that inspired it — so if on his behalf U2 could revive something that seemingly moribund and re-embrace all the meaning it ever once had and still could have, yes, they loved the guy.
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Early in the show, Bono had eulogized their 33-year comrade in initially lighter-hearted fashion, recalling how Sheehan “came to this city as a young man in the 70s, working for Led Zeppelin. So in many ways he always thought that maybe U2 could be the next Led Zeppelin, which of course is impossible. We did try once at his last big birthday. We turned up at his birthday dressed as Led Zeppelin. And I’ll say, the Edge looked pretty good with a twin-head guitar — whatever you call that guitar. And a bottle of Dom Perignon hanging out of Larry Mullen’s hand looked a little too like Bonzo. Adam, that was quite something, because he had a kind of professorial John Paul Jones look. The biggest problem was I couldn’t quite fill Robert Plant’s pants. But who could? Anyway, a lot of U2 songs over the years have been written to fill a void, an absence, a hole in a heart left by a loved one. And this next one is one of those. It’s for my mother Iris, who taught me that through the wound … there’s an opening to something fantastic. This is Iris, beautiful Iris, the beginning of the end of innocence for me.”
Adding that speech interrupted the thematic segue U2 was making in the set list between “I Will Follow” and “Iris (Hold Me Close),” their oldest and newest songs about Bono’s mother. But then, U2’s whole story lately has been one constantly interrupted narrative. “The U2 curse” has been a less delicate way some people have responded to incidents ranging from Bono’s serious accident to the Edge’s not-so-serious tumble off the stage, through the February death of their longtime tour chaplain and now this. And of course there was the way any potential conversation about the content of their high-minded concept album, Songs of Innocence, got utterly preempted by the furor over how it was delivered (no thanks to them, of course). By designing this new tour to bring out the themes of that album, U2 seems to be saying: Circumstance stole Songs of Innocence from us, and we’re stealing it back!
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The tour is a wildly successful act of reclamation, then, even if it may not inspire everyone who deleted the free album off their iPhones last year to suddenly buy it back. The “Innocence + Experience Tour” is almost like one of those one-man shows that old-timers do, weaving songs and stories about their salad days together, albeit combined with the big-budget extravagance of a tentpole blockbuster. The first half of the show, the “innocence” half, focuses on the newer material about the group’s youth, matching a fresh song about the troubled 70s of Ireland like “Raised by Wolves” with its obvious antecedent, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” A brief intermission separates that part of the show from the “experience” half — which, since U2 hasn’t yet gotten around to delivering the promised sequel to Songs of Innocence, consists primarily of catalog material representing their sexier or more wisened sides.
They don’t rely on a lot of between-song patter to get the message across once Bono has made a few early remarks establishing the milieu of his teen years. The rest of the story is hammered home visually, in what may count as the most imaginative set design for a major rock tour so far in the 21st century. An epic ramp extends nearly all the way from the stage to the other end of the arena, with an equally epic set of overhead LED screens — think ultra-widescreen Cinerama, squared — that the four band members occasionally walk up a set of stairs to insert themselves in-between. Words only go so far in expressing how fantastically this works in a venue like the Forum, but suffice it to say that if every photo you’ve ever taken on your smartphone at an arena show ended up deeply sucking, you won’t have a problem going home with swell souvenir shots from almost any vantage point on the seating chart.
The band is wise to start off the set with a handful of back-to-basics numbers on the main stage. But in reality U2 has strived a little too hard to de-emphasize their sense of theatricality in recent years, as if the backlash to the PopMart tour knocked some of that ambitious staging out of ‘em. Since the late 90s, God knows they’ve still brought a lot of hydraulics along to their stadium shows, but they never successfully combined that with any thematic or conceptual prowess in the 2000s or 2010s, the way they once did, until now. “Innocence + Experience” embraces the experience of all that spectacle in the service of saying something about their simpler days — a calculated risk that pays off for any attendees who don’t automatically equate showmanship with a lack of earnestness.
Highlights Wednesday included the first-half closer, “Until the End of the World,” which already benefits just from being the greatest Irish Christian rock song since the 6th century’s “Be Thou My Vision.” Bono ends the song by tossing C.S. Lewis books into the crowd from the B-stage — a nice door prize if you can get it — while citing Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Before that, he’s on the big screens, his giant visage’s fingers toying with the merely life-sized Edge, playing either God or the devil, it’s hard to tell which. “Cedarwood Road” is also a mini-masterpiece of staging, with Bono inserted into his childhood haunts, as the petals of the title tree eventually turn into a pink flurry.
On a more mundane technological level, it’s hard to beat the moment when the band invites an audience member onto the B stage to shoot a stripped-down number — on this night, “Angel of Harlem” — to be broadcast live via the fledgling Meerkat platform. “This goes out across the globe — to about 150 people, until it catches on,” Bono quipped.
And, as you’d hope, some of the more memorable moments had nothing to do with staging at all: Bono and Adam Clayton butting (or really just gently touching) foreheads during “Out of Control.” An improbable shout-out to America’s armed forces — a slightly belated nod to Memorial Day? — before the singer talks about the U.S. as “not just a country, an idea” that “I want to be part of.” The sudden insertion of “a change in the program” with the late addition of “Bad,” not on the official set list. “It’s about surrender and it’s an important word,” Bono said. “This is about letting go. So anything you want to let go, just let go of tonight. Anything that’s holding you back. I know I sound like a preacher, but you know it’s the truth.” Grief, it went without saying at that moment, being included in that.
One notable difference between this performance of Bono’s and previous ones: roughly 40 percent fewer catlike moves. You could attribute that relative lack of prowling to his recent injuries, the re-emphasis on elaborate video production, or sobriety at the end of a day that involved the death of a friend. But a Bono that was just a little bit less black-leather panther and just a little more mortal was fine by this audience, happy to know there’s no quick answer in sight to the musical question, “How long to sing this song?”
The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
Out of Control
I Will Follow
Song for Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Raised by Wolves
Until the End of the World
Set break (with recording of The Wanderer)
Even Better Than the Real Thing
Angel of Harlem
Every Breaking Wave
Bullet the Blue Sky
The Hands That Built America
With or Without You
City of Blinding Lights
Mother and Child Reunion (Paul Simon cover)
Where the Streets Have No Name
Photos by Jeff Kravitz