There's something inherently incongruous about the serene, relentlessly thoughtful music U2 made at its creative peak and the stadium-sized spectacle that came to Glendale last night. Sure, the band has been one of the few extant rock acts capable of (nearly) selling-out football fields for two decades, but I still say something about seeing such personal songs sung to crowds that large just feels weird. And I know I'm not the only one who noticed.
"Believe it or not we built this spaceship to get closer to you," a black-leather clad Bono said, gesturing up at the towering four-footed contraption supporting the band's massive, circular stage. "We're looking for intimacy."
"Intimacy on a grand scale" he quickly added, self-aware enough to chuckle at the irony of his words, given the situation.
Surprisingly, there were moments when Bono and his band found what they were looking for. Yes, there really were special, intimate moments at this stadium show.
Not when the slow expansion of a giant LCD sculpture more or less stole the show while Bono and Edge sang to each other behind the drum riser. Not when drummer Larry Mullen lugged a bongo around the outer ring of the stage while a backing track provided the only meaningful percussion during the ridiculously awful new single "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight." Not when it became obvious just how much playback was used during "Mysterious Ways." Not in an ill-conceived bit where 100 or so members of the audience strolled on stage holding up masks of imprisoned Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi during "Walk On." Definitely not when you realized just how many "BlackBerry Loves U2" ads had been stuck up around the stadium.
But, considering this is very likely the largest crowd gathered for the purpose of listening to rock music in Arizona this year, U2 did an excellent job of shrinking things to a relatable scale at points. The audience really did seem to sway "as one" for a moment during "Sunday Bloody Sunday." I'm sure he's played it 10,000 times, but The Edge's brilliantly understated solo in "One" certainly felt extemporaneous. One zoom-in from the appropriately over-sized LED screen showed The Edge was singing along to "Where The Streets Have No Name" with almost unnatural intensity -- especially considering he was barely mic'd.
No, it wasn't the show songs from the band's magnum opus, The Joshua Tree, deserved, but it wasn't the Godforsaken PopMart Tour either.
Here's my intimate thought: I still prefer to associate U2 with speeding across the California desert, imagining what a forest of Joshua trees looked like to a young indie band from Ireland. Or the walk I took through a bombed-out street in Belfast, Northern Ireland, realizing how brilliant and important "Where The Streets Have No Names" really is.
Bottom line: U2's best music is personal music, and personal music doesn't fit in basketball arenas, let alone football stadiums.
The effort is appreciated nevertheless.
Last Night: U2 and Black Eyed Peas at University of Phoenix Stadium
Better Than: Billy Joel and Elton John, to be sure. It's obvious U2 is not mailing it in.
Personal Bias: Pro Joshua Tree. Anti Pop, Achtung Baby and Zooropa.
Random Detail: What was up with that light-up coat Bono came out in for the last encore? And why did he put it on a hanger, hang the hanger on a light-up microphone suspended from the top of the stage setup and send it skyward only to take out another microphone? Weird.
Further Listening: Rattle and Hum really is a greatest hits record.
By The Way: Follow my twitter, where I'm doing some live updates from show's I'm seeing. twitter.com/martincizmar