The recurring themes of U2's first Los Angeles-area show in four years were space and time, and both were laid out right off the bat.
David Bowie's Space Oddity, which turns 40 next month, played as the band readied to take the stage at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The mammoth set that towered over the stage resembled a spacecraft -- a bit like a gigantic invader from the '80s arcade game Galaxian. And frontman Bono name-checked various time zones that might be watching the YouTube broadcast of the show, including Hong Kong, Sydney, Dublin and Morocco.
The references continued throughout the night as the jam-packed football stadium (a record 95,000 people or so) reveled in the most popular band of its generation.
But amid the revelry, something was different about this show: Bono was uncharacteristically quiet between songs for the first 90 minutes or so, leaving many in the far-far-away seats out of that community he forms and coalesces at the best U2 shows. Although the band's playing was typically superb -- and acknowledging the perhaps unfair higher standard to which U2 is held -- Sunday's show is unlikely to be remembered among its best.
Part of the reason was the set list. Whereas the 2005 Vertigo tour reached back to the band's earliest days -- perhaps as a nod to the 25th anniversary of its first album -- the 360 degree tour focused on the recent past. Fourteen of the 24 songs were from this decade, with only one pre-1984. Seven came from this year's No Line on the Horizon, one of the very few U2 albums without an instant anthem. The band opened with three from the new record, but none was particularly grabby. The show's energy sagged during many of the new songs, with the stadium crowd hungry for arm-waving sing-alongs.
Bono's voice was in fine form, especially with the tour four months' old. He varied some vocal melodies and peppered songs with snippets of others, including God Only Knows, Stand by Me, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It) and U2's own In God's Country. But he got gimmicky for the band intros, which embraced the Hollywood setting: Drummer Larry Mullen was compared to James Dean, bassist Adam Clayton to Clark Gable, guitarist the Edge to sci-fi in general. Bono cryptically referred to himself as a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, with a little Dennis Hopper thrown in.
This tour lands somewhere between the multimedia overkill of Zoo TV's stadium excess and the relative simplicity of the arena-level Elevation jaunt. The set is enormous if not particularly elaborate, and the giant, 360-degree video screens gave everyone a good look. For such a huge setting, a surprising highlight was the gentle reading of Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of, which featured only Bono and the Edge, the latter adding some sturdily bluesy falsetto harmony near the end. The new I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight saw the bandmates stroll around the oval ramp that encircled the stage, Mullen carrying a single bongo.
The space theme re-emerged during In a Little While; space travel turns me on, Bono sang before the crowd got a video reading from an astronaut at the International Space Station.
Bono kept his politics -- and pretty much any other comments -- to himself, until near the end. The political rally began with him asking, Radio Tehran, can you hear us, before the band ripped into Sunday Bloody Sunday, which shrugs off eras and borders. With its martial drums and call-to-attention guitar, it remains among the band's most affecting songs in concert or otherwise.
Many began to flee as the encore began, hoping to beat the school-night Bowl traffic. Afterward, few grumbles were heard in the parking lots, save for some grousing about song selection. So it was another successful U2 concert -- not the most moving or rousing they've given but certainly much more than just a time and space filler.