There’s something to be said for the symmetry of your basic rock ‘n’ roll quartet, of which U2 is the most globally successful and enduring of the past three decades.
Like a table, the unit needs four solid supports — bass, guitar, drums and vocals — to keep it sturdy, but once it’s stabilized, most anything can be stacked upon it. Whether there’s an optimistic ballad, an arena rock anthem or a rhythm-heavy banger, a proper quartet can handle it.
During the first of the Irish band’s weeklong set of five concerts at the Forum, U2’s musician pillars held and expelled so much energy that at times the sold-out arena could barely contain itself. It was an environment in which the band’s exuberant performance of “Beautiful Day” midway through felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
MORE: U2’s set list
Through songs that drew on its post-punk origins in war-torn Ireland, its late-'80s Brian Eno-inspired sonic expansion, its Biggest Band in the World play in the ‘90s and its Apple-centric, anthemic 21st century, the band explored its past while making an argument for continued relevance. The response? Fans, including many in their 30s and 40s who have lived with the band since its rise, roared between nearly every song, the room a rush of human bliss. Unlike at some arena gigs, the applause seldom felt compulsory. Rather, it was a natural response to an inarguable show of force.
Along with singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. did so within a unique stage setup that made the arena feel something close to intimate. Compared to its appearance in 2009 at the Rose Bowl, this Forum gig had the feel of a theater date.
The band opened with the 2014 song, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” its ode to the lightning bolt that is music discovery. Describing in song his first exposure to New York punk band the Ramones, Bono sang of waking up “at the moment when the miracle occurred,” a rock ‘n’ roll rebirth that reconfigured his world — “the most beautiful sound I ever heard.”
Drawing from its early years, the band jumped back to its 1980 debut album, “Boy,” for a deep cut, “The Electric Co.,” as well as its first stateside hit, “I Will Follow.” In both cases, the Edge rolled through his distinctively piercing guitar lines with the ease of an expert who long ago transcended the skill-set limitations of his early work. Later, during the revelation that is “Bullet the Blue Sky,” he shot melodic darts whose tips were drenched with distortion.
A band rich with optimism but born amid pessimistic times, U2 this time around offered less a global history lesson than a personal history lesson, with Bono and band returning to their roots, thematically going back to violent Dublin in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The band coupled “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” its classic document of deadly sectarian violence, with “Raised by Wolves,” about a series of car bombings during the same era.
Amid a set that also focused on the band’s teenage years — Clayton wore a Sex Pistols T-shirt — these early anthems connected the violence outside with the music upending culture at the time. During “Mysterious Ways,” U2 sounded like dance-punk legend Gang of Four, which in the late ‘70s coupled exuberant beats with rants against commercialism.
Where Gang of Four addressed Big Issues within its lyrics, though, U2 took another tack over the decades: It inhabited the machine, used it as a vehicle to Trojan-horse into the mainstream conversation and explore weaknesses from within.
The downside of that strategy, though, is that a lot of its recent vintage songs connect first as commercial jingles. Many of us first heard “Vertigo” as part of the first-generation iPod campaign called “Silhouette,” in which the band sang of “a place called Vertigo” in service of a supposedly revolutionary device.
“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” has been drilled into our heads not as much through radio airplay — or at all voluntarily — but through iPhone ad buys. That truth complicates our relationship with the music; it’s a solid rock song, yes — but considering that we first absorbed it involuntarily, it also has the feel of a brain-plant, as though U2 bought its way into our psyches in the same way as it injected “Innocence” into our iTunes folders.
But screw that. It sounded great.
The oval-shaped Forum usually relegates many to binocular views, but U2 made great use of the space and employed a circular PA system that shot out in all directions from the middle with force. Though the main stage was still at one end of the oval, an extended catwalk connected it to a smaller stage at the opposite end.
The placement allowed the band to move along the length of the arena and connect with a huge swath of the crowd. Better, above the walk hung back-to-back billboard-sized video screens that displayed images and illustrated set scenes at precisely timed intervals throughout the night. Best, the screens were semi-transparent and held within them a second catwalk that rose and fell.
During “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” the men stood on the raised stage and played while a precisely positioned video moved with kinetic energy around them. (Tragically, the man responsible for running this operation, Dennis Sheehan, died unexpectedly in the hours after Tuesday’s concert. What effect this has on the band’s extended transcontinental itinerary is yet unknown.)
One surreal moment occurred mid-set, when Bono spied a look-alike in the crowd and pulled him up on stage. From a distance, the guy was a ringer. In fact, the impostor was a professional look-alike who plays in a Los Angeles cover band called Hollywood U2. In what must have seemed like an impersonator’s wildest dream, he and Bono did a duet of “Sweetest Thing.” (Unlike in many such dreams, nobody was naked.)
Even minus his doppelgänger, Bono filled the room, no small feat given the debilitating bicycle crash he suffered in late 2014. Despite since-mended broken bones in his hand and face, he didn’t seem any worse for wear. He was a little scratchy between songs, but the wreck didn’t affect his vocal cords at all. And the Edge seemed fine after he fell off the stage earlier in the tour.
The easy metaphor is to connect the accidents to U2’s controversial rollout of “Songs of Innocence,” which was delivered into a half a billion iTunes accounts without customers’ permission. Both hinted at a once indestructible band revealing its weaknesses.
Not so on Tuesday. This table was constructed to endure, and it certainly has. U2 was hard and aggressive but nuanced, a band still open to variation and rich with the determination to pull it off.
Where: The Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood
When: May 30-31, June 3.