“I’ve got to catch my breath,” Bono said after ripping through “Vertigo” during U2’s tiny club gig at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood on Thursday night.
It was a rare break in the tight, hourlong show, and the frontman had rightfully earned his brief reprieve.
For the record, 3 p.m. May 29: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to a U2 album as "All That You Can Leave Behind." The correct title is "All That You Can't Leave Behind."
In the 45 minutes leading to this moment, the superstar Irish rockers had already moved through an exhilarating set that saw the band rip through some of their earliest tunes and a few of their defining smashes for just 500 fans.
With Thursday’s show, U2 were making good on their promise to make up for pulling out of KROQ’s Almost Acoustic Christmas in December after its frontman was injured in a bike accident weeks before.
The special show -- tickets were given to contest winners -- came during a whirlwind week for the rock band.
U2’s latest high-tech, high-concept spectacle, the Innocence + Experience Tour, launched a five-night stint at the Forum on Tuesday and the band’s longtime tour manager Dennis Sheehan died of a massive heart attack in L.A. the morning after its first Forum gig.
Thursday’s show was as much about looking back and thrilling fans with a once-in-a-lifetime experience as it was about paying tribute to their fallen comrade.
Opening with “The Ocean” from its 1980 debut “Boy,” Bono & Co. leaned heavily on older cuts -- and the crowd, literally -- for the show.
Thurday's show was crafted for diehard fans. (A few outside the venue even attempted to trade Forum tickets for a wristband.) The bulk of the material came from their debut and 2000's "All That You Can't Leave Behind," with their massive albums "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby" getting completely overlooked.
While their arena set is a sophisticated wonderland of sprawling catwalks and video screens the size of billboards, their no frills set-up at the Roxy delivered passion, intimacy and energy that no major arena could manage to capture.
When Bono – sporting his signature blue-tinted shades and a black leather motorcycle jacket – dug into the band’s second-ever single, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” he leaned into the swath of crowd that hugged the stage as if he was prepping a stage dive.
And that intimacy never waned.
At one point Bono, face aglow from a handful of smartphones pointed only inches from his chiseled face, grabbed a fan’s hand for balance as he climbed atop a speaker.
He used the speaker as a soapbox for a thrashing take of “The Electric Co.” Later in the show he felt comfortable enough to do a trust-fall into the crowd.
Although Bono has pulled fans onstage for years, this time when he hoisted up an adoring fan and put his arms around her to sing “Beautiful Day,” it was easy in this environment to feel like you were in her place.
At one point, the frontman took a gulp of water and hurled it from his mouth, then flung the entire bottle, droplets of water sprinkling throughout the crowd as it soared (something only the first few rows at an arena might be lucky enough to experience).
“I’m out of my mind right now, I’ve loved them since high school," one ecstatic fan told me as he jumped up and down. "I’m 50 and I haven’t heard some of these songs live in years.”
Despite the heady flow of dizzying energy, there were moments where Bono managed to still the crowd.
First he dedicated the heavy “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” inspired by late friend and fellow rocker Michael Hutchence, to Sheehan.
“You fight with your friends. You love your friends. You die for your friends. You work with your friends. It’s kind of a dysfunctional family in U2,” he explained, “but actually quite functional in other ways, because we do look after each other.
“You can sense the love and best wishes we had the last 24 hours, from all over the world,” Bono said later, both thanking the crowd and eulogizing his friend. “[Dennis] actually had the dignity that our music aspires to ... He had that dignity.”
The stage lights dimmed to a deep red as the boys fired up an electrifying version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in Sheehan’s honor. The band fed off the crowd’s hard jumping as the Edge, seemingly saving extra fire for the moment, unleashed his most intense guitar solo of the evening.
At the close of their set, Bono recounted the group’s first trip to Los Angeles, which included a visit to Zuma Beach in search of Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson’s house. One of the band's albums was in the room at their first rehearsal, he explained, and they believed Wilson “had the music of the spheres.” (Whatever that means.) The story set the tone for “California (There Is No End to Love),” one of two songs they performed from their most recent record “Songs of Innocence.”
“It’s another song about grief and the defiance that is the joy of rock and roll,” Bono explained before thanking the crowd and leading them through yet another sing-along.
11 O’Clock Tick Tock
I Will Follow
The Electric Co.
Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Out of Control/Iris (Hold Me Close)
Song for Someone
California (There Is No End to Love)/God Only Knows