U2 On Tour: Back To Their Roots in L.A.

by Hal Schwartz
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U2 performing May 31st at The Forum

I first saw U2 at the Nassau Coliseum on April 3, 1985. I was just a kid and the band wasn’t much older. It would be hard to overstate the impact of that first show. It’s seared into my memory. What I remember most is the ferocity of the performance. Bono performed like he was playing to save his life and perhaps even to save his country.

Since that time, I’ve seen multiple shows on every U2 tour that has taken place, watching the band go from an act that kicked your ass with sheer power to a band that used progressively bigger multi-media presentations to augment the music. On the band’s last tour, U2360, which was record-breaking in every capacity, I found myself in the Rose Bowl, packed with over 100,000 people watching an enormous spectacle that was almost hard to believe – a display that was completely impossible to envision back at my first show in 1985 at the Nassau Coliseum.

U2360RoseBowl SongMango.comWhile U2360 was certainly a technological marvel, the likes of which we’ve never seen before, it left me cold. For the first time, the spectacle was larger than the music, but for me, a concert should always be about the music first. Even being on the floor and close to the stage, I felt very little connection with the band or the songs they were performing. Back in the ’90s, what made the ZooTV Tour so brilliant was how well the multi-media show fit conceptually with the music and the statement the band was making.

It would be four years until I saw the band again. During the interim, U2 would go through numerous high-profile travails. Stung by the reaction to their previous album, No Line On The Horizon, the band embarked on a torturous process in the recording studio. A revolving door of producers, rumors that Bono had writer’s block, and a gap so long that some people began to wonder if we’d ever see U2 release another album.

U2SongsofInnocence SongMango.comWhen they did finally complete the long awaited album, Songs of Innocence, it got caught up in a surreal controversy because of how it was released – for free via iTunes. This led to a completely irrational backlash where some people apparently thought the world’s worst problem was receiving a free album from the biggest rock band on the planet.

For those that actually listened to the album, it was clear the tortured recording process had culminated in something special. An album that is very personal and intimate but also, at the same time, it totally rocks.

When word began to leak out that the tour being planned would start in arenas, the fans rejoiced. And then, disaster struck. On the eve of the tour announcement, Bono was involved in a horrible bike accident in NYC and suffered devastating injuries. All promotion for the album and tour was cancelled, and fans didn’t know if or when the tour would happen. The one public performance the band had planned for 2014 was KROQ’s Acoustic Christmas here in LA – and it was cancelled.

Ultimately, the tour was announced a few weeks later. Bono released a statement saying that he was going to dedicate every waking moment to his recovery and getting ready for the tour. Fortunately, he did recover and finally U2 was ready to launch what was dubbed The iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour.

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Bono on May 31st at The Forum

The tour announcement stated that the shows would be sold in pairs, and Bono was quoted as saying they were going to give each of the nights a different feeling. Somewhat controversially, they later backed away from this plan shortly before the tour was set to begin.

Some fans were upset because they had bought tickets to multiple shows based on the idea the shows would be different. The important thing was the time for music to be played had actually arrived and after four years, a new U2 tour was set to begin. The first show in Vancouver received rave reviews, and I excitedly awaited the band’s arrival in Los Angeles two weeks later.

The day finally came. So I walked into The Forum on May 26th, to see my first U2 show in four years, and I am very happy to report I was totally blown away. It was quite simply utterly magnificent.

The Forum in Inglewood California. Photographed by Stephen Schafer

The Forum in Los Angeles

Every aspect of the show is fantastic: the way they make an arena feel like a club, the absolutely amazing staging of the show, and a sound system that is the best I’ve ever heard in an arena by a country mile.

Most significantly, the band sounded amazing, and they have put together a two-set musical journey that starts in Bono’s childhood bedroom on Cedarwood Road (the iNNOCENCE) and progresses through both the band’s journey and all of our collective life experiences (eXPERIENCE).

The massive screen that divides the arena in half both beautifully illustrates the show’s themes, and at points, even becomes a stage itself with the band playing inside – bringing them even closer to the fans in the upper level. The impact of all this in combination is considerable.

Putting aside the band’s post-9/11, Elevation shows, which are in their own special category because of the circumstances (if you’re not sure what I’m talking about check out the video below of “Walk On” from MSG from October 27, 2001), this was easily the best U2 show I’ve seen since ZooTV in 1992.

The show was so energized and so well conceived in every respect that it’s hard for me to pick specific highlights. If forced, I’d say the most memorable moment for me was when the band was playing on the smaller “e” stage, and they did “California (There Is No End To Love)” and “The Sweetest Thing” back to back. I was standing only a few feet away, and it felt as intimate as being in the smallest clubs U2 ever played back in the day. “The Sweetest Thing” even included a guest appearance from a Bono impersonator that the U2 frontman plucked out of the crowd. It was an hysterical moment, and the impersonator could really sing!

By the end of the night, “One” incited a massive sing-along from the sold-out crowd – and it was clear the band felt like they were on top of the world.

Sadly and almost incomprehensibly, they awoke the next morning to tragedy. In the middle of the night, Dennis Sheehan, U2’s tour manager for 33 years, passed away. The band issued a statement in which Bono said, “We’ve lost a family member, we’re still taking it in. He wasn’t just a legend in the music business, he was a legend in our band. He is irreplaceable.” A few hours later, Live Nation confirmed that the second LA show scheduled for that night would be played as scheduled.

U2DennisSheehanTribute SongMango.comOriginally, I was planning to skip the second show but as soon as the first show ended, I had started looking for a ticket. Fortunately, at 4 p.m. prime seats right by the main stage popped up on Ticketmaster. Since for all the other shows I was planning to be on the floor, this was perfect because the show really does need to be seen from multiple perspectives. I grabbed a pair and headed down to the show with my buddy Ron.

How does a band take the stage to perform just hours after the death of a close friend? In a cruel twist of fate, the answers are actually contained in the current show, in which dealing with death is a central theme. Prior to the wonderful “Iris (Hold Me Close)” from Songs of Innocence – a song written about the death of Bono’s mother – Bono stepped to the mic and talked about manager Dennis Sheehan:

What a privilege to share the stage with these brothers of mine and to share this evening with you who have given us everything. U2 is kind of family. It’s a brotherhood, although there’s a lot of sisters too. But our extended family is very, very important to us. We look after each other and it takes a lot to put on a show like tonight. Last night we lost a member of our family. Dennis Sheehan was his name. He was U2’s tour manager for 33 years. He loved, as we all do, the city of Los Angeles and he called the Sunset Marquis his ‘home away from home’. He came to this city as a young man in the ‘70s, working for Led Zeppelin. He always thought maybe U2 could be the next Led Zeppelin, which of course is impossible.

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Dennis Sheehan with Bono

Bono went on to tell the crowd a funny story about a birthday party for Sheehan where the band dressed up as Zeppelin and played. Later in the show, the band also added an impromptu version of “Bad,” introduced as a song about “letting go” and allowing the miracle of music to help you overcome (between “Beautiful Day” and “With Or Without You”).

Finally, the band ended the show with the tour premiere of “40,” Bono saying “So we dedicate this song… in fact we dedicate the night… in fact we dedicate our whole tour to the very vivid memory of Dennis Sheehan, St. Dennis of Dublin, as he’s known around here.” A huge memorial appeared on the screen as Bono led the crowd in the mournful refrain of “how long to sing this song?” It was a moment that nobody in the building will ever forget.

The following night, U2 really went back to the roots with a show at The Roxy, a 500-seat club on the Sunset Strip. Half the tickets were given away by KROQ, the other half were controlled by Live Nation. To say this was an impossible ticket would be a massive understatement. I was lucky enough to see the last full club show that U2 did in the States at Irving Plaza in NYC back in 2000, this time I never even sniffed a ticket. I later spoke to a mega-U2 fan who told me she had paid $1,000 to get in. I asked how it was and she answered without hesitation “it was worth every penny.”

I also skipped the third show at The Forum on Saturday night before gearing up for the final two shows of the stand.

The Sunday night show, we were in the Red Zone, the VIP general admission experience that is being sold in support of the Red campaign. We started in the Red Zone, moved to the “e” stage, and then moved back to the Red Zone – never more than five feet from the band. It was an awesome experience. It was also my favorite set list of the week.

RattleHumU2 SongMango.comThe 2nd set included three songs from Rattle & Hum: “Angel of Harlem,”  the rarely played “When Love Comes To Town” (in honor of the late B.B. King), and an absolutely soaring version of “All I Want Is You,” which for me was the complete highlight of the week.

The response to “All I Want Is You” was so big and powerful that I was sure the roof of the arena was going to blow off.

This was a show that built perfectly to its climax, and you could tell the band was loving every second of it. They varied from the printed set list to once again end with “40,” the entire arena singing along as each band member walked down the long ramp to exit off the “e” stage.

The fifth and final show was played last night. It was evident the crowd was full of hardcore U2 fans. This show had taken a while to sell out, which meant that all of the fans who really wanted a ticket were able to get them. The band had some major curveballs planned in the 2nd set. Three new songs were added to the show – the tour premieres of “Volcano” and “Ordinary Love” as well as the second tour performance of “The Troubles” – making a total of 10 new songs out of the 24 songs played on the night.

The studio version of “Volcano”

U2One SongMango.comIt really takes guts for a band like U2 to play a show comprised of 40% new material at this stage of their career, but with the full support of the crowd, it worked perfectly. If anything, I think by the end of the night, this was the loudest crowd of the stand. In particular, “The Troubles” was stunning; it should definitely be played more often.

Studio version of “The Troubles”

In between the encores, Bono thanked the crowd saying “this has been the most incredible ten days” and also said they owe the audience everything for giving them amazing lives. As did the first night, the show ended with the crowd totally taking over “One” – “One life but we’re not the same, we get to, Carry each other, Carry each other.”

With what the band had been through during the past week, it was hard to miss the poignant message – and as the crowd sang, we carried the band and each other into the night.

U2’s Innocence & Experience Tour. If you love music, do not miss it. It’s that simple. Thanks for listening.

You can follow Hal Schwartz on Twitter @BullMarketEnt.

Hal Schwartz is a Los Angeles-based film producer, TV and movie junkie, and Springsteen aficionado. He loves the magical moment when the lights go down and the show is about to begin...