Breaking Rose Bowl attendance records, performing on the biggest rock stage ever constructed and making repeated reference to the “seven continents” on which a live stream of the night’s concert would be seen, U2 took great pains to convey the unbearable bigness of being U2 on Sunday. Yet this massive scale actually diminished the inherently huge Irish quartet, who put in a patchier-than-usual perf. There’s still no band in the world that can do what it does, but the arena-communion catharsis that used to come so effortlessly to it has begun to show signs of strain.
It may seem unfair to knock a perfectly enjoyable and frequently exciting rock show for failing to achieve transcendence, yet ecstatic spiritual uplift is exactly what U2’s best material promises, and it was in scarce supply during its two-hour stand in Pasadena. Drawing heavily from the band’s slow-selling, underwhelming new record “No Line on the Horizon,” the group seemed to place more emphasis on staging and spectacle than on music, and one couldn’t help but wonder how much of this was compensatory.
The band performed inside a monstrous enclosure resembling both an alien spaceship and a giant, long-legged insect, replete with a catwalk encircling a massive audience pit, two moving bridges that connected the satellite platform with the main stage, and a giant cylindrical video screen that expanded and descended, at one point nearly covering the stage and causing all four band members to disappear behind their own digitized images. There was a broadcast direct from the international space station, a loose extraterrestrial narrative and enough fog machines for a million high school theater productions of “Phantom.” It was impressive, indisputably innovative, and signified nothing.
U2 has pushed boundaries with its staging before, but while the hydraulic lemon and golden arches that accompanied the 1997 tour might have been too pretentious, and the heart-shaped runway platform of 2001 too on-the-nose, at least there were coherent concepts behind them. “The claw,” as the present structure is known, is merely a mammoth marvel of engineering, and the band that was supposed to be the focus was often swallowed up by its bells and whistles.
A number of U2’s signature hits — “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “The Fly,” “New Year’s Day” — were absent from Sunday’s set, which wouldn’t have necessarily been a problem if the new songs that replaced them weren’t so obviously inferior. “Breathe” and “No Line on the Horizon” were both improved by the live setting yet still a bit milquetoast, while solid newest single “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” was nearly unrecognizable, reorganized into a disco-rumba goof that induced more confused whispering than dancing.
Oddly enough, the one outright clunker of the evening was clearly the song the band worked hardest to sell. “Unknown Caller,” an awkward, halting track on record, was essentially turned into a sing-along at gunpoint, with a karaoke-like scrawl onscreen spelling out the lyrics and singer Bono frequently ordering the crowd to form a “chorus of voices.”
The classics fared far better, with the band employing minimalist gospel touches and a snippet of “Stand by Me” to craft a gorgeous rendition of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The sexy New Testament-themed raver “Until the End of the World” remains one of the strongest weapons in the band’s live arsenal, and oldie “The Unforgettable Fire” was given a dramatic rendering. Bono had seemingly blown out his voice during encores “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” and “With or Without You,” yet guitarist the Edge’s atmospheric sonic architecture carried both songs through magnificently.
Bono has, whether by choice or necessity, begun gravitating toward a loose, talking-blues style with his vocals, delivering verses like scatty, oddly emphasized spoken-word pieces while saving up power for the big notes in the refrains. If he is, in fact, losing his voice to age, this could be a perfectly respectable technique to allow him to continue performing (one used by Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra before him), though he hasn’t quite figured out how to pull it off yet.
The Edge’s guitar playing was uniformly excellent, and his lone stint on lead vocals (during the coda of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”) briefly outshone those of his gradually hoarsening bandmate.
Although many critics have (often deservedly) lambasted their techno hip-pop, openers the Black-Eyed Peas were undeniably entertaining. Whether it was amusement at bandleader will.i.am giving shoutouts to every single L.A. suburb he could think of (“Pomona!” “Montebello!”), or simple gratitude that they refrained from playing “My Humps,” even most of the cynical rockists present eventually conceded to enjoy the group’s hourlong set. For their trouble, the Peas trotted out ex-Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash for a note-perfect run through “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” with lead siren Fergie managing a shockingly accurate approximation of Axl Rose’s snake-dancing and nasal melismata — if not exactly his lyrics.