360 Degrees of Love: Reflections On The First North American Leg of U2′s World Tour

October 31, 2009

The mathematical idea of 360 degrees descends from ancient Babylon and has contemporary correlation in everything from video game systems to snowboarding. Increasingly in common usage, the “360 degree” concept represents a comprehensive and enlightened take on whatever is at hand, as in “360 degrees of knowledge.”

Few bands have had the volumes of cash or cache of vision to attempt something as ambitious as a massive stadium rock show, and in the months that U2’s 360 tour has been jetting and trucking its way around Europe and North America, critics and fans have attempted to analyze every aspect of the endeavor: musically and morally, environmentally and economically.

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Enough of the Folk Mass (Ann Powers’ Rose Bowl review for the LA Times)

October 26, 2009

“Enough of the folk mass!” declared Bono during U2′s historic Rose Bowl performance Sunday, leading his band and the nearly 100,000 fans in the stadium out of a singalong and into a dance party. The 49-year-old singer/activist/life of the party has been making such quick metaphorical turns for much of his life, fronting a band known for transcendence but hardly immune to sensual pleasure.

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 this tour, 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, allowing this most ambitious rock band to genuinely reconfigure live pop performance.


Plenty of artists have played in the round, built multi-tiered 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, and that translated differently in person than it could have on YouTube, where the concert was streamed live.

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 unstack 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 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 concerts 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 nearly 100,000 people relax together, as if held within a gentle, open hand.

“God will put a wind at our back and a rising road ahead, if we work together as one,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in an on-screen message late in the concert. That vision of nations and individuals opening up to one another is at the core of U2′s mission. This extravagant tour gave the band another way to enact it and made for a whole new concert experience in the process.

Opening the show, the Black Eyed Peas went for something more tried and true, but also powerful: a party vibe celebrating the home team. Performing its many hits in an exuberant set, the Peas radiated Southern California pride. Tabu draped himself in Mexican and American flags; will.i.am name-checked neighborhoods and towns from Hollywood to East L.A. to La Crescenta.

The set’s spirited climax came when Fergie took Axl Rose’s part in a rough and true-blooded cover of  the Guns N’ Roses classic “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” with Slash himself on guitar. If U2 aimed for universals, the Black Eyed Peas reminded us that particulars have their uses too. Especially when those particulars are as diverse as the elements that make up the Southland.

– Ann Powers


U2 360 Tour Continues into 2010, North American Dates Announced

October 26, 2009

As predicted by various speculators, U2 announced its 2010 United States tour dates today, hot on the heels of its live global webcast on YouTube. Having seen this show live on four different dates in three different venues, I can testify that, despite whatever detractors might say, the webcast worked on multiple levels to extend the communal stadium experience worldwide to create an instantaneous global connection and cohesion.

For many fans who have already seen the tour,  yesterday’s webcast and today’s announcement only further excited and enticed, prompting us to begin making summer travel arrangements to coincide with the next legs of the tour. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

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Treasure Island Festival ’09: Day Two

October 25, 2009

One major plus about the first day of this festival was the weather; yesterday was clear and warm, with a spectacular sunset and almost no need for long sleeves.  All of those things tend to be a rarity in San Francisco this time of year.

Things are looking much more ominous as I get off the bus Sunday, with threatening cumulonimbus brewing out over the Golden Gate while Sleepy Sun kick off their set for a small but stalwart crowd.

The weather may not be as good, but the audience today is certainly mellower, and also more diverse, covering a much larger age bracket.  Surely there are a few Pavement and Bob Mould geeks amongst this bunch.

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The North Carolina trio keep roots music alive with their Rick Rubin produced new disc.

October 25, 2009

For most bands, change in musicianship can be frightening, but not for the Avett Brothers. Starting out in early 2000’s as a hard rock band, they made the impossible transformation to an acoustic-oriented roots music group. While this could have meant the end for most bands (can you imagine System of a Down making an album of Woody Guthrie covers?) the Avett Brothers have prevailed and released the superb I and Love and You.


On their last album Emotionalism the first track was entitled “Die Die Die,” but this one starts off with the gorgeous ballad that shares its name with the album. The song starts off with a solo piano and vocals, which starts a song-long crescendo with instruments and volume being added throughout. This track leads into the pleasant little number “January Wedding” which displays the group’s undeniable ability to sit down and play an enjoyable piece of music. After this song is when it becomes more obvious that the band has just been signed to a major label, as elements like string sections start to make their way into the songs. Just when you think that the album could suffer as a result from over-bloated arrangements is when they fire back with their stripped-down sound and win you back again. “Kick Drum Heart” is the most fun song on the album, and it has the perfect balance of those strings and the live band playing and it leads to the band re-uniting with their rock n’ roll roots.  The second half of the album finds the Avetts rocking a little harder with tracks like “Tin Man” and the sing-a-long worthy “Slight Figure of Speech.” The album then ends with what seems like a mockery ballad “Incomplete and Insecure,” which does not leave you wanting more as much as the end to Emotionalism did, instead it makes you feel sorry for the dudes who made an album which has an overwhelming majority of enjoyable music.

Although I and Love and You can feel uncomfortable at times with too much production, there is top-notch songwriting involved. “The Perfect Space” could just as easily be called “The Perfect Song,” and it doesn’t take ten thousand words to describe how good the song “Ten Thousand Words” is. But I and Love and You finds the Avett Brothers as comfortable musicians who are still on a quest to improve and grow doing what they love best, and if this album is any indication as to where they are going, let’s hope they keep it coming. — Kenny Pirog, Contributing writer

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