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"These days, everyone wants John Lennon's sunglasses, accent and swagger, but no one is prepared to take their clothes off and stand naked like he did in his songs." — Bono

by latindrummer

U2 fans will want to smack me. What I originally anticipated to be an underwhelming gig turned out to be an exciting, inventive and surprisingly fresh production. Simply put, U2 can still elevate my soul. The first four songs were a great introduction to the show, including driving versions of “Electric Co,” “Vertigo” and “I Will Follow.” Yessss…I finally got to hear “I Will Follow” live!!!

And my naive presumptions were shattered by the Innocence/Experience stage play, for lack of a better term. We were treated to a visual story that unfolded onstage. Visual story meaning that the band’s performance was augmented by a billboard sized video screen suspended from the rafters and hanging parallel to the runway. It was a 3D design, the band members were able to climb into the billboard screen and walk through it. The group itself physically became part of the visuals.

Bono began the story telling segment of the show by speaking about his mother – a video played onscreen while the group worked its way into “Iris,” one of the stronger tracks off the new album, Songs of Innocence. The next chapter to this story began as Bono introduced us to his old neighborhood on Cedarwood Road, while animated visuals showed a row of houses, caricatures, outlined with bold colors. The band then eased into another new track, the appropriately titled “Cedarwood Road,” and Bono walked into the video screen and he was transported back to Cedarwood Road, Dublin city. We were taken back to the group’s beginnings and the visual story was eye-catching, compelling and left me in awe. Bono walked along the road while images of the houses swirled around and moved along, making it appear as if Bono was walking through a cartoonish residential area. Another animation was used to show Bono as a teen, sitting on his bed with an acoustic guitar, while the group eased into “Song for Someone,” my favorite track off the new album. Edge played SFS entirely on electric guitar and very cool to hear.

It was at this point that this section of new songs gave way for what seemed like an inappropriately placed “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” But what impressed me was the arrangement and how it represented the band’s early period and the issues back home in Dublin during that point in history. All four group members took to the runway and performed a slightly altered arrangement. This was not an acoustic version like what’s been described online, as Edge played all the guitar parts on a Fender Strat – his sound was cleaner than usual with little to no overdrive, distortion or delay. His guitar parts were restrained and less abrasive than typical live versions. The bigger change-up was in Larry’s performance. Gone was the full drumkit. He walked along the runway with a marching snare and sling strap. The basic pattern was tapped out on the snare, 16th notes, with the accents and signature rat-tatatat-tat played with rimshots. The snare was killer. It was a metal snare with black finish, aggressive, with a high end crack that jolted you and perked you up to full attention. The group stuck to the runway, giving those floor ticket holders closer access to their heroes. The runway was illuminated with green and gold, colors of the Irish flag. The group exited the runway one by one as the song winded down. Larry was the last to go, as he snapped loud, cutting rimshots on the snare drum. They were whole notes, as if he was counting down, a timer. On screen a car appeared, while a news broadcast reported an IRA bombing.

This was a chilling segue to “Raised By Wolves,” as it began with a car bomb detonation. The thematic link was cool but also very sobering, and the band continued their story with a song about the Dublin and Monaghan terrorist bombings. The links were astounding, serious and personal in tone. The band has stated that this record is very personal to them. And the thematic links prove that. RBW is written from the perspective of Andy Rowen, childhood friend of the band, who witnessed those bombings first hand. Andy is brother to Peter Rowen, who as a youngster appeared on the cover art to Boy, War, and the Best Of albums. It was Andy who was driven to heroin use, and thus provided the lyrical inspiration to “Bad” off of the Unforgettable Fire. “Until the End of the World” closed set one, another aggressive, cataclysmic track in keeping with Raised By Wolves.

UTEOTW it’s one of my favorite tracks off Achtung Baby but I was hoping to hear something different, something seldom performed or never performed in the past. The intermission/break began and we were treated to a prerecorded video of “The Wanderer” off of the Zooropa album. In a creative move, an animated Johnny Cash performed the song, giving the crowd a unique and surreal performance. It made me appreciate Zooropa as an album and it reminded me of what an incredible talent and cultural icon Johnny Cash was. Little did we know that the group had taken their places within the screen as The Wanderer drew to a close. U2 immediately slipped into the opening bars of “Invisible,” while the video screen gradually revealed the band members, the pixels morphing, to reveal the group, little by little. Invisible was a great addition to this set. I enjoyed it better in this type of setting, rather than the televised appearance on The Tonight Show.

In typical “brave” U2 fashion, they included 6 of the new songs in tonight’s set and they fit in surprisingly well. I’m not the biggest fan of the new record, Songs of Innocence, but this night’s arrangements and performances made me eager to revisit the album, especially the acoustic versions. The songs went over very well. “The Miracle” was a good set-up song, kicking the show into an anthemic and driving start. But it was “Iris” and the gentler numbers that won me over as a fan of the album and of this tour. “Cedarwood Road” was also a surprisingly effective number. Edge’s guitar lines in that song were the perfect backdrop for Bono’s ‘stroll’ on screen. But the absolute show stopper of the night was a stripped down arrangement of “Every Breaking Wave” with piano and vocal only on the mini stage (e stage). It was a sparse, simple arrangement, but elegant and gorgeous. It had us captivated, while cell phones and lighters sparked to life throughout the arena. Bono’s vocals were very strong and he delivered his lines with more passion, power and precision. It was like he was saving his best stuff for that particular song this night. He reminded me that he’s still a great singer, that he’s the man. Yes he’s in his 50’s and his range and tone have changed, but this song proved that the current Bono can still belt it out and make your hairs stand on end.

This group has been around for a long time and they still find ways to make the familiar (and the over-played) sound rejuvenated and exciting by altering the presentation and arrangements. I admit I’m very hard on this band for not being more adventurous when it comes to the live sets. Some of us are still holding hope for “Acrobat” and “Drowning Man” to show up one day. My brother made a good point that the standards (some of which have been played to death in my opinion) are easier to rehearse, less time consuming to prepare, and just easier to pull off live consistently, night to night.

The band restored much of my faith by including an electric version of “Desire” on the e-stage with Larry playing a cocktail drumset. A cocktail drumset is a more compact set up and played in a standing position. I haven’t heard “Desire” played like that before and it sounded pretty damn cool. A song that I’m usually ambivalent about made me take notice, made me grin and think ‘damn, no wonder it was a top 5 single.’ It groooooved. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Mysterious Ways” usually make me yawn. But this night’s performances were like a slap in my face and made me appreciate and enjoy the songs again. EBTTRT was similar to the arrangement used during the 360 Tour. It was bouncy, exuberant, and transformed the arena into a dance club. The visuals were bright and stunning, and at one point it looked like a wall of fire was projected on the big screen. Those GA fans on the floor must have had their minds blown. “Mysterious Ways” kept the funky pace going. Mirror balls descended from the big screen and the night club theme continued. This version was funkier, had more thump, and Edge’s guitar playing was tighter and more like the studio version. Larry’s drumming on the cocktail kit sounded great: commanding and very bitchin. I seriously want that snare. The drums will make you move…”the orbit of your hips…”

“The Sweetest Thing” made a surprising appearance and the group made it sound great. It was like an acoustic jam, with Edge strumming rhythmic chords while Adam and Larry laid down a great groove. The vocal delivery was great. A fan was plucked from the stage and film the band on her smartphone. I think a video feed was supposed to take place but the connection was never made and the videos screens remained blank. An upright piano rotated into place from underneath the e-stage. Bono plucked away the piano hook and the the song ended. What a breath of fresh air.

Near the close of set 2, the group was poised to perform “The Troubles,” what would have been the 7th and final song represented from the SOI album. In a surprise move, Bono motioned to the group members and said “let’s just try a song that’s not on schedule…this is Bad” and the audience went freaking nuts! It was a sight to see such a huge response for a song that’s a non-single, and probably not very familiar to the casual radio fan. The sequencer was switched on as Bono sang a piece of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” then Edge began playing the opening riff. “This is a song of surrender…whatever it is you want to let go of tonight, let it go. You are free…” For such a slower number, the crowd was very animated, standing, and moved like crazy during the build up into the final chorus. Bono struggled a bit during the ‘wide awake’ portions but who wouldn’t have trouble, it’s a biznitch to sing. The closing number for set 2 was “With or Without You,” and thankfully it wasn’t played in a lazy fashion like the previous two tours. It was an uplifting close, and only the second time I’ve witnessed this song performed out of 6 shows since 2001.

I enjoyed the show but this was my first time sitting behind the group. When I initially purchased these tickets I made the mistake of not checking for notes about limited viewing/behind the stage viewing. I was just elated that I managed to score affordable tickets! It made for a unique vantage point but I think I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have, I didn’t feel fully engaged. I’m pleased that the group was able to put on a show, a tour, that is vastly different than the previous one, the massive stadium extravaganza that was the 360 Tour. This tour is more intimate and has more in common with the 2001 Elevation and 2005 Vertigo tours. The new songs were well received and much of the older material was revamped. If I had a gripe it would be regarding the show length. For the first time ever, U2 has utilized the “evening with” format: no opening act, 2 sets with an intermission. Granted the group performed 24 songs in all, the show running time didn’t exceed 2 hours 15 minutes. I know this is pretty generous, considering the guys in the group are now in their 50s and performing live and traveling can be challenging, physical work. The selfish die-hard in me would have loved to see a longer show, even by 15 minutes more, easily throwing in another 3 songs or so…come on guys, you know you can do it. Hell, let Edge sing lead on a couple numbers. And to my disappointment, the group abandoned the idea of rotating set lists, preferring to stick to a rather static set with only a couple changes from night to night. Still a great return to the stage. And now on to the LA Forum gigs!

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