The U2 carnival has once again come and gone. That’s right, as part of their eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE Tour, the 22-year-old group from Dublin, Ireland arrived in LA for two dates at The Forum, in Inglewood, bringing spectacle and showmanship for the 35,000 or so folks in attendance. Had he been alive to see it, P.T. Barnum, the famous politician / businessman / showman who founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus, would have been impressed.
The spectacle surrounding the promotion of U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience (the second act of their 2014 album, Songs of Innocence), began with the CD, itself. Beyond the thematic content of the music (which was inspired by poet William Blake’s collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience), the CD’s cover art possesses an interactive, augmented reality component, which can be viewed through the U2 mobile app. This gimmick was also integrated into the concert.
For the first hour of the show [technically, the concert was supposed to start at 8:00, but the band didn’t get started until 9:00], concert goers who had downloaded the app could aim their cellphones at a giant screen and see and hear a progression of digital veneers. First there was a melting block of ice, then a waterfall, and then, when the show started, a giant, stylized Bono (which is what pops out of the CD cover). After the opening song, “Love Is All We Have,” the app prompted users that the AR portion of the show has concluded.
The concert was a thematic journey, representative of the themes spread across the two albums. Bono revealed the overarching narrative toward the end of the show, which was “Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience.” The setlist generally favored material from the new album, which was presented in tandem with some new and some old concert spectacle wizardry, and the show was periodically narrated by Bono, whose commentary included: pleading humanitarian causes, saying “We love you, Los Angeles,” and acting out some surprisingly daring theatrical bits.
The most prominent example of the latter reference was Bono’s donning of a Devil face (digitally imposed over his own on the giant screens) and saying in a sinister voice: “When you don’t believe I exist, that’s when I do my best work” and “The KKK are out in the street in Charlottesville without their silly costumes.”
It is always interesting to study the crowds at the band’s stadium-packing shows. One can speculate about the authenticity of U2’s commitment to humanity (given the revelation that approximately 1% of the proceeds of the band’s co-founded charity organization ONE actually goes to help starving people in Africa — the proceeds fund the group’s advocacy work — and the recent allegations that ONE “fostered an atmosphere of bullying, abuse and, in one case, attempted sexual coercion” [New York Times]); however, many of the fans ride the wave of the band’s humanitarian sentiments. This is evident in several ways, such as the people waving the flags of their countries [Mexico and Chile were represented] in an attempt at recognition / inclusion, and the teary eyes that fill the stadium when Bono preaches about equal rights. These speeches are usually punctuated with plugs for his causes — both for ONE (which celebrated its 14th birthday on the day of this show [May 16]) and for ONE’s current legislative objective, The BUILD Act. Other aspects of the show hit closer to home for the band, such as the song “Iris (Hold Me Close),” which is about Bono’s mother, who died when he was 14.
All things considered, U2 can always be counted on to put on a first rate spectacle. For the fans who just wanted a taste of some golden oldies, the set did include (albeit sometimes unfamiliar arrangements of) classics like: “I Will Follow,” “Beautiful Day,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Pride,” “Until the End of the World,” “Elevation,” and “Vertigo.” Their balance of artistry with humanitarian themes can sometimes be hit and miss, and the most daring elements are presented minimally [the band would probably never do a show experiment as far-out as, say, Neil Young’s Greendale tour], but anyone who ponies up the bucks to see their show is probably going to have a refreshing and, at the very least, nominally life-affirming experience.