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Pop Music Review

U2 goes beyond the event horizon

October 27, 2009|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

At a moment when "live" concerts, even the once-in-a-lifetime variety, are as accessible as a mouse click, how do you make people still value the act of sharing space with artists as they create music? U2 answers that question with its much-hyped and genuinely great new tour, which made two kinds of history Sunday at the Rose Bowl. The Pasadena stop on the band's 360 Tour was the first stadium concert ever streamed live on YouTube. It was also the biggest musical event to take place in that space.

And while the webcast raised interesting possibilities for live music on the Web, the show itself reminded those present why the bodily experience of sharing space with artists making music is so crucial. U2, always so skilled at pushing the concert form to new limits, has genuinely reconfigured live pop performance with this tour.

Usually, Bono and his band mates travel from prayers to come-ons on the force of charisma and a sound that's ascendant and sleekly funky, structured around the Edge's stretchy guitar parts and Bono's dirty-faced choirboy cries. But for the 360 trek, U2 has adopted another mode of transport: the four-legged circular stage rig known as the Claw, or the Space Station.

This contraption is an extravagance with a big carbon footprint and an even bigger price tag. But in Pasadena, it proved worth every Euro.

Plenty of artists have played in the round, built multitiered sets and spent time roaming through the crowd on ramps or trapezes. But the Space Station (Bono's preferred term these days) changes the architecture of the live concert. It not only puts the stadium audience closer to the band, it cuts holes in the fourth wall between star and fan, creating a feeling of immersion and communal connection that's startling in such a huge venue.

Ringed by a ramp that the band members usually reached via moving bridges, enclosing a good chunk of the crowd within a welcome pen, the Space Station truly conjoined U2 and its audience. The Rose Bowl's relatively low walls enhanced the illusion that mere footsteps (and sometimes less than that) stood between the men and their elated devotees.

When Bono crouched at the ramp's edge or the Edge strode across it, churning out a riff, they seemed as touchable as superstars could be.

The Space Station's fragmented and shifting ground dismantled the conventions of the rock concert. "I was born to lift you up," Bono sang in "Magnificent," one of the many songs performed from the band's latest album, "No Line on the Horizon." But at times this music seemed to do the opposite -- it pushed the crowd under a wave of echo and distortion, or formed a passageway between the fans and the band.

Those joyfully shouted group choruses, to older songs like "One" and "With or Without You" but also to newer ones like "Magnificent" and "Unknown Caller" (the latter aided by lyrics splayed across the Space Station's screen), offered the clearest route to union. But it also happened when the Edge and his billowing guitar phrases bathed the space in harmonics during "Until the End of the World," or when the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. (the latter playing a strapped-on conga) moved every body in the house with a Latin-cum-rave take on "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight."

U2's time-honored approach to spiritual enlightenment worked its magic too, when Bono prefaced the old favorite "Where the Streets Have No Name" with some verses of "Amazing Grace," or when he interjected phrases from crowd-pleasing oldies like "Stand by Me," or simply shouted "Soul! Soul! Soul!" (His funniest interjection, though, was when he compared himself to Dennis Hopper and then did a bit of that actor's heavy breathing from the film "Blue Velvet.")

But after three decades as an important band, U2 is long past simple uplift. Its music is as much about emotional entanglement (as in "Ultraviolet" on Sunday) and disorientation ("Vertigo"). Ultimately, it is a meditation on space: the majestic natural landscapes that the Edge's guitar playing often describes; the crowded dance floors or train platforms Clayton and Mullen's rhythms evoke; the inches between a whispering mouth and a lover's ear, or the infinite journey of a prayer hurled into the air.

The Space Station allows U2 to make those musical and lyrical preoccupations physical in a new way. At the Rose Bowl, it created a new experience even for the most jaded concertgoer. U2 performances have often included moments in which raised voices build goodwill or shaking hips stimulate joy. But for the first time, perhaps, this band's noise resulted in a kind of silence and stillness -- not a literal one, but the rapture that comes when about 100,000 people relax together, as if held within a gentle, open hand.

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