Live review: U2's 360 Tour at the Rose Bowl
Usually, Bono and his band mates travel from prayers to come-ons on the force of charisma and a sound that's ascendant and sleekly funky, structured around the Edge's stretchy guitar parts and Bono's dirty-faced choirboy cries. But for this tour, U2 has adopted another mode of transport: the four-legged circular stage rig known as the Claw, or the Space Station. This contraption is an extravagance with a big carbon footprint and an even bigger price tag. But in Pasadena, it proved worth every Euro, allowing this most ambitious rock band to genuinely reconfigure live pop performance.
Plenty of artists have played in the round, built multi-tiered sets and spent time roaming through the crowd on ramps or trapezes. But the Space Station (Bono's preferred term these days) changes the architecture of the live concert. It not only puts the stadium audience closer to the band, it cuts holes in the fourth wall between star and fan, creating a feeling of immersion and communal connection that's startling in such a huge venue, and that translated differently in person than it could have on YouTube, where the concert was streamed live.
Ringed by a ramp that the band members usually reached via moving bridges, enclosing a good chunk of the crowd within a welcome pen, the Space Station truly conjoined U2 and its audience. The Rose Bowl's relatively low walls enhanced the illusion that mere footsteps (and sometimes less than that) stood between the men unstack and their elated devotees. When Bono crouched at the ramp's edge or the Edge strode across it, churning out a riff, they seemed as touchable as superstars could be.
The Space Station's fragmented and shifting ground dismantled the conventions of the rock concert. "I was born to lift you up," Bono sang in "Magnificent," one of the many songs performed from the band's latest album, "No Line on the Horizon." But at times this music seemed to do the opposite -- it pushed the crowd under a wave of echo and distortion, or formed a passageway between the fans and the band.
Those joyfully shouted group choruses, to older songs like "One" and "With or Without You" but also to newer ones like "Magnificent" and "Unknown Caller" (the latter aided by lyrics splayed across the Space Station's screen), offered the clearest route to union. But it also happened when the Edge and billowing guitar phrases bathed the space in harmonics during "Until the End of the World," or when the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. (the latter playing a strapped-on conga) moved every body in the house with a Latin-cum-rave take on "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight."
U2's time-honored approach to spiritual enlightenment worked its magic too, when Bono prefaced the old favorite "Where the Streets Have No Name" with some verses of "Amazing Grace," or when he interjected phrases from crowd-pleasing oldies like "Stand by Me," or simply shouted "Soul! Soul! Soul!" (His funniest interjection, though, was when he compared himself to Dennis Hopper and then did a bit of that actor's heavy breathing from the film "Blue Velvet.")
But after three decades as an important band, U2 is long past simple uplift. Its music is as much about emotional entanglement (as in "Ultraviolet" on Sunday) and disorientation ("Vertigo"). Ultimately, it is a meditation on space: the majestic natural landscapes that the Edge's guitar playing often describes; the crowded dance floors or train platforms Clayton and Mullen's rhythms evoke; the inches between a whispering mouth and a lover's ear, or the infinite journey of a prayer hurled into the air.
The Space Station allows U2 to make those musical and lyrical preoccupations physical in a new way. At the Rose Bowl, it created a new experience even for the most jaded concertgoer. U2 concerts have often included moments in which raised voices build goodwill, or shaking hips stimulate joy. But for the first time, perhaps, this band's noise resulted in a kind of silence and stillness -- not a literal one, but the rapture that comes when nearly 100,000 people relax together, as if held within a gentle, open hand.
"God will put a wind at our back and a rising road ahead, if we work together as one," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in an on-screen message late in the concert. That vision of nations and individuals opening up to one another is at the core of U2's mission. This extravagant tour gave the band another way to enact it and made for a whole new concert experience in the process.
Opening the show, the Black Eyed Peas went for something more tried and true, but also powerful: a party vibe celebrating the home team. Performing its many hits in an exuberant set, the Peas radiated Southern California pride. Tabu draped himself in Mexican and American flags; will.i.am name-checked neighborhoods and towns from Hollywood to East L.A. to La Crescenta.
The set's spirited climax came when Fergie took Axl Rose's part in a rough and true-blooded cover of the Guns N' Roses classic "Sweet Child o' Mine," with Slash himself on guitar. If U2 aimed for universals, the Black Eyed Peas reminded us that particulars have their uses too. Especially when those particulars are as diverse as the elements that make up the Southland.
-- Ann Powers
Photos: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.