Live review: U2 at Angel Stadium

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These days the U2 stage rig, nicknamed “The Claw,” looks better after dark. At dusk Friday, as thousands of fans filed into a sold-out Angel Stadium in Anaheim to see the rock band perform, it was apparent that the orange spots extending up and down the hulking four-legged structure, within which U2 has performed since it launched its 360 Tour in 2009, were starting to fade with age.

A few scuffs along the skin-like tarp covering the mechanical creature also offered evidence of multiple loadings and unloadings from 18-wheelers on the road with the biggest rock band on earth.

Photos: U2 rocks Angel Stadium in Anaheim

U2, formed in Dublin, Ireland, in 1976, returned to the Southland to make up for two concerts they were forced to cancel when singer Bono, 51, injured his back during rehearsals last spring.


During that forced intermission, other real-life hurdles challenged the notion that the band was indestructible. U2’s two principal songwriters, Bono and guitarist The Edge, teamed up with director Julie Taymor for a Broadway adaptation of Spider-Man called “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” that has become the butt of jokes, the scene of injuries and the target of scathing reviews for nearly two years.

In an early critique of a preview ‘Spider-Man’ performance, Times critic Charles McNulty called the music created by the two “a cacophonous brew.” The refurbished show officially opened last week, and the new reviews aren’t much better. Add to that Thursday’s news that the California Coastal Commission had rejected The Edge’s development proposal, decried by many conservationists, to build five mansions on an undeveloped site above Malibu, and, well, this hasn’t been a great year for U2. So the question pre-concert became: How deep were these wounds? Could the power of music help redeem a band that throughout its career has declared over and over again its desire and ability to do just that? Basically, could U2 still bring it?

At the beginning of the concert, not really. Starting with “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” the band sounded muddled, the engine of the music not yet warm, the stadium not yet tuned, the fans experiencing the initial adrenaline rush but not yet buried inside the rhythms. And “I Will Follow,” the first cut on the band’s first album, ‘Boy” (1980), hasn’t aged well, even if it pulls at the nostalgia strings for many; the rhyme scheme is young and clumsy, the guitar line relatively simple and undynamic.

Graphic: U2’s 360 Tour stage explained

And when, during “Get on Your Boots,” two rolling bridges that connect different parts of the circular stage first rolled into place and The Edge and bassist Adam Clayton played in the middle above the crowd, the maneuver felt very 2009; too staged, too postured, and a touch clumsy -- even though the song is one of the danciest, most propulsive songs in the band’s catalog.

But something magical happened about 20 minutes in, during “Elevation.” Maybe it was the overjoyed crowd bellowing the song’s “Woooo-oooo” chorus in unison, or the way the lights reflected off the masses. Whatever it was, it rushed across Angel Stadium like a cold front, leaving in its wake the sacred sensation that all music lovers seek. The sound and vision clicked, the world started sparkling, the audience moving and singing as one. The moment swirled as Bono went carnal on us: “Higher than the sun, you shoot me from a gun,” he declared to his lover, and the thousands did it too. “I need you to elevate me here/At the corner of your lips/As the orbit of your hips’/Eclipse.”

This profound moment may not have been the same for everyone, but it happened in Section 130. You could see all around: A few rows up, on the lips of the 70-something Gloria Swanson-looking rich lady mouthing the closing words to “Until the End of the World:” “Waves of regret, waves of joy/I reached out for the one I tried to destroy.” A few seats over, a 30-something ex-frat guy air-guitared The Edge’s classic, piercing riffs, lost in the moment. A woman in front of him was singing so hard that her companion nudged her and tried to calm her down.

Up in the nosebleed seats, a tiny banner waved, its specific message indiscernible to those of us below -– let alone Bono -- but its larger signal to the band clear: We may never speak in person, but I can see you, and I can hear you, and I believe what you say and what you sing about, and I’m willing to spend a lot of money and, even worse, drive through the crappiest traffic in America on a Friday rush hour to chase the feeling and get lost in that moment. For me, it was “Beautiful Day,” and it always is, a brilliant piece of aural Prozac. For others, it was “Pride (In the Name of Love).” Or “Vertigo,” or “Walk On,” which closed the set before the band returned for two encores.

Over the course of the evening, Bono saluted a number of people in the crowd, most notably the band’s longtime manager Paul McGuinness, who was celebrating his 60th birthday. Announcing that it would be the first time McGuinness had ever appeared on stage during a U2 concert, Bono joked that without their manager, drummer Larry Mullen would probably be a highway patrolman, Clayton a designer of “posh handbags,” The Edge a city planner, and himself a theater critic. Later, Bono thanked Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who was in attendance, and acknowledged Maria Shriver before, tellingly, moving into “Pride (In the Name of Love).”

Lenny Kravitz opened the show with a performance. As has always been the case with Kravitz, the word “performance” takes on many meanings: Yes, he and his band “performed” his hit rock songs from the past two decades. But with a band that looked straight out of central casting and enough stereotypical rock poses, grimaces, haircuts and costumes to make Nigel Tufnel blush, Kravitz and company treaded on both sides of the line that separates fact from fiction.

It’s a danger that U2 struggles with too. Big gestures and grand, but basic, declarations are necessary when one is trying to communicate with so many thousands at once. But universal truths can seem painfully obvious when uttered out loud. “Let Love Rule” is easier said than done. Be it Billy Graham, who held a few big-volume revivals at Angel Stadium during his heyday, or Bono, connecting with so many people at once is both an art and an act. How effectively an artist can communicate with an audience lies in the ability to manifest the act while vanishing into the spirit of the art.

U2 does this incredibly well. They know how to create huge moments that are filled with truth, with meaning, with hope. Yes, at times the truths seem painfully obvious if you’ve read the news and pay attention to history, or if you don’t suffer big rock-star egos gladly, or, especially, if you’re a hopeless cynic. This big-egoed dude roaming the stage in leather and wearing sunglasses at night looks a little ridiculous. But, then, he did write “Moment of Surrender,” which the band ended the show with.

A song about the most personal kind of submission there is, the singer in leather had a message that rang true on Friday night, one that many experienced, at least according to the roars of the crowd as the band floated toward conclusion: “At the moment of surrender/I folded to my knees/I did not notice the passers-by/And they did not notice me.” A mirror ball rotated amid the fog at the top of The Claw. That kind of light shooting into the darkness never gets old.


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-- Randall Roberts