Bono knows how to work a room, only for decades he's been working arenas and stadiums, offering sweeping gestures on the most epic stages. Last night at the Roxy Theatre on L.A.'s Sunset Strip, U2 showed they could still dial things down to the most intimate level, playing a thrilling set for 500 ecstatic fans.
The band is currently in the middle of five shows at the 17,000-capacity Forum. Their Innocence + Experience tour is high-tech and high-concept, but here they seemed excited to deliver a straight-ahead rock show of passion and drive with a set list that included four songs from their 1980 debut, Boy. Even the band's first L.A. show in 1981 was at the old Country Club in suburban Reseda – a venue with about twice the capacity of the Roxy.
Things kicked off with the post-punk swirl of "The Ocean" before the Edge's slicing guitar signaled the transition to "11 O'Clock Tick Tock." Bono stood centerstage in black motorcycle jacket and shades, leaning into a forest of hands aiming cell phone cameras at his face. He was soon splashing water into the crowd as the band dove into U2's explosive first U.S. hit single, "I Will Follow."
The group played another cut from its debut album, "The Electric Co.," and here Bono kneeled while the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. stretched out on a fitful instrumental break. Midway into the song, Bono introduced the three musicians he's played with since they were Dublin teenagers, giving Clayton a long hug. "Who am I? What am I?" he then asked the crowd, singing of fools and regrets via the melancholy lyrics of Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," which the band has quoted within "The Electric Co." since that first U.S. tour.
The club show was a kind of local make-up gig after U2 bowed out from last year's KROQ "Almost Acoustic Christmas" show following Bono's devastating Manhattan bike accident. Tickets were distributed free to listeners by the station, a crucial early radio supporter of U2 in the U.S. Also in the room were fans like Jack Nicholson, Tom Morello, Aaron Paul and Courtney Love.
Bono has been pulling people onstage for years, but the gesture seemed more tender at the Roxy, where he brought a young woman up from the front row and put an arm around her to sing "Beautiful Day." It was a truly emotional moment, and she sang along when not overcome by the experience.
The night got even more emotional when U2 dedicated two songs to their longtime road manager, Dennis Sheehan, who died suddenly in his hotel room the day before. First was "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," originally written as an imaginary conversation with INXS singer Michael Hutchence after his 1997 suicide.
"He actually lived the dignity that our music aspires to," Bono said of Sheehan. "You fight with your friends. You love your friends. You die for your friends. You work with your friends. It's kind of a dysfunctional family in U2 . . . but actually quite functional in other ways because we do look after each other."
The military beat of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" followed as Bono sang for his fellow Irishman on a stage lit up in deep red. The song, about the 1972 massacre of unarmed protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland, was despairing and defiant. Fans bounced hard to the beat, and Bono's wail led into the Edge's splintering, confrontational solo.
U2 began their encore with 2004's "Vertigo" as the crowd counted off the opening: "Uno, dos, tres . . . catorce!" Singing at the edge of the stage, Bono slowly fell forward, then backward onto the outstretched hands of fans for a brief moment of crowd-surfing.
At night's end, he spoke of U2's first trip to Los Angeles and a visit to Zuma Beach in search of Brian Wilson's house. He noted there was a Beach Boys album at U2's first rehearsal in 1976. "We heard he had a piano in a sand pit and we just thought this man had the music of the spheres," Bono said as the band eased into Songs of Innocence's celebratory "California (There Is No End to Love)." They added a bit of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" and closed a short but potent set with a forceful, mystical sound of their own.
"11 O'Clock Tick Tock"
"I Will Follow"
"The Electric Co."
"Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of"
"Sunday Bloody Sunday"
"Out of Control"/"Iris (Hold Me Close)"
"Song for Someone"
"California (There Is No End to Love)"