U2: “eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE Tour”; United Center; Chicago, IL – Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Much like our political affiliations in these profoundly partisan days, we often wear our musical preferences as a flag about our own preferences and values. When I wear my tour t-shirts, whether it’s Wilco, Steve Earle, or Lollapalooza ’92, it’s often a statement of what I’m into, what I care about, and what I think it is cool, what matters. In the age of the “selfie,” fashion (or its rejection) and style, as well as musical and movie preferences are a Rorschach inkblot expression of who we are, we’re telling the world what we want them to see and think when the see us.
All of which became clearer as fans and critics responded to the more recent U2 music, and the tour that has followed. All last summer, during “The Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary” tour, and in the responses to the Irish quartet’s last two albums – “Son(gs) of Innocence “ and “Songs of Experience,” U2 fans, myself included, have sought to establish where they stood in relationship to the band, as the artists themselves continued to produce new music. Some have declared that the band hasn’t made a good album since “Joshua Tree,” and others make the same claim about “Achtung, Baby,” while a few will try to suggest that “Zooropa” and “Pop” are under-rated classics as well, and of course many have claimed to have lost interest in the band’s entire catalog since the 2000’s.
Nevertheless, unlike bands like Journey and Def Leppard who are seeking to fill stadiums this summer based on the popularity of music they made in the ‘80’s, U2 who clearly couldn’t overcome the temptation to cash in on the 30th anniversary of their most successful album last summer, has hit the road this year emphasizing their newer music. Whether you see this as an act of courage and confidence in one’s continued creative relevance or an act of hubris and arrogance, probably says as much about your musical values and interests as it does this late model would be Fab Four.
That monumental “Joshua Tree” tour aside (and I’m not just talking about the ticket prices), this year’s “eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE” tour is designed as a follow-up and completion of 2015’s “iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE” tour, which at the time was an experiment that involved an extensive multi-media show that utilized a large movable cage that split the floor of the arena in half, which doubled as a projection screen and a performance platform that the band effectively moved in and out of while telling the story of their early career using the music of “Son(gs) of Innocence,” and a collection of the band’s hits to narrate their story of moving from modest begins in the violent Irish “troubles” to their status as a world class rock act. It was a marvelous event, turning the traditional rock concert format on its head, and using state of the art screen graphics and smart scripting to tell a story of rock success and personal/artistic fulfillment in a way that felt universally affirming. If you missed that show/tour, and didn’t catch the live HBO broadcast from Paris at the end of the tour, you may want to check it out on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFmxnTlCSp4). It’s a good use of time, especially when you remember it was delayed following the terror attack in Paris that pre-empted the broadcast, and included U2 relinquishing their stage to the Eagles of Death Metal who’s previous show had been invaded by terrorists who shot up the crowd.
So, last Wednesday night, I entered the United Center again, almost three years to the day, to see what had been advertised as ostensibly “Part Two” of this expansive creative endeavor, already hearing from previous cities on the tour of enhanced technology and improved graphics, and in Greg Kot’s review of the previous night’s show, that fans are still struggling with the band’s spiritual and political statements that inevitably come through their music, and the introductions and proclamations of lead singer, Bono. One in attendance on Tuesday night reportedly screamed out, telling the singer to “shut up and sing.” Really? It’s been 34 years since U2 broke out commercially in the U.S. with songs from their “War” album, dripping with political import in hit singles “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day,” and spirituality in their version of Psalm “40,” plus in “Like A Song…” they went ahead and told us that they wear things like revolution “on my sleeve” and they “sing a rebel song.”
Last summer it was almost comical, to hear U2’s Bono bend over backwards to try and make any of their fans who might show up in “Make America Great Again” hats feel at home, downplaying the obvious left-leaning political content in songs like “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Where were those “Zoo TV” tour tear downs of Jerry Falwell, and those nightly phone calls to the White House? Just saying.
On Wednesday night, the show started with Bono in full auto-tune embrace from inside the cage, echoing the opening track of “Songs of Experience,” “Love Is All We Have Left,” but was quickly joined by the band, playing inside the large shell on one of the new album’s standout tracks, “The Blackout.” As the three instrumentalists headed toward the main stage, Bono offered up the “St. Peter’s String” version of “Lights of Home,” which shows up on the extended version of the CD, while climbing the tilted stage in an array of stringed lights. But what rang out clearly was the message of empowerment that was “free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see yourself.” Say what you will, but that’s a timely and important word for our time, in my humble opinion. We need all manner of marginalized and people designated as “other” to know their value and not just the voices that diminish and demean.
The band finally came together on the main stage in traditional rock band formation, to play a classic from their first album, “I Will Follow,” which appeared all the way back on 1980’s “Boy,” which was followed by another “Experience” highlight, “Red Flag Day.” (Early in the tour, the band had included this one, plus “Gloria” in their setlist, but by the time they got to Chicago, they had chosen to just play one or the other, and played “Gloria,” from their sophomore effort, “October” at the Tuesday night show.) Now if I’d been creating the set list (no telling why I never get that phone call), this is where I would have added the vastly under-appreciated “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone,” but pleasantly enough they opted for a latter day hit, “Beautiful Day,” with its message and musical uplift.
As they turned to the telling of the show’s primary storyline, the band played a mostly instrumental version of “The Ocean,” from “Boy,” which Bono spoke over to focus the narrative, and capture in brief the outline of the show 3 year’s prior in their performance of the song dedicated to his mother, “Iris (Hold Me Close), followed by “Cedarwood Road”’s description of growing up in the Dublin of the 60’s and 70’s. Next came “Sunday Bloody Sunday” terse telling of the violence of the Irish troubles with terrorism, which included a variety of slogans pointing toward one of U2’s most profound concerns, peace-making and “no more war.” That it also included the statement on the screen that “collusion is not an illusion” was a less than subtle expression of the concern that those who forget history are destined to repeat it.
Here, the band had cut another strong song from “Innocence” from the set list, but “Raised by Wolves,” would have been a keen addition to the narrative arc they were developing, but it was cut without explanation. The closed out the set proper with another classic fan favorite, “Until the End of the World,” with its warning of the dangers of apocalypse and the personal betrayal at the heart of the human dilemma. The “intermission” gave the band a break, while the story-telling and somewhat political narrative line was furthered over the band’s “Batman” theme, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.”
Strangely enough, like during last summer’s “Joshua Tour” spectacle, U2 seemed to be dwarfed by the larger stages and production, but came powerfully alive on the more intimate, smaller, satellite stage, where they were closer to each other and the fans, and the energy they wanted to produce was focused by necessity on the music and their performance. So it was fitting that they dug into several of the strongest musical moments of the night when encumbered by the least impressive visuals. Okay, the stage they were on had many cool visual effects that were displayed smartly on the bigger screen, but mostly it was U2 rocking out on some their own hit music with intensity that made the moment special.
So the strongest moments of the night came in four solid rockers: “Elevation,” “Vertigo” which Bono added a bit of the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll” in the songs final phrases,” “Desire,” the one song lifted from “Rattle And Hum,” and finally a rarity from “Achtung, Baby,” which has finally made it into the band’s live repertoire for the first time ever, “Acrobat,” which provided Edge’s most exciting guitar solo moment of the show. If there is a point of danger in the pursuit of “experience” it’s that we not only lose our way, but often sacrifice things that are far more important, and Bono used the between song banter here to make that point. If “Vertigo” found the band losing its balance in the face of achieving worldwide success, wealth and influence, Bono confessed all of that “went to my head.” Introducing “Acrobat,” Bono, wearing his circus ring-master Top Hat, embodied the MacPhisto character that showed up in devil horns toward the end of the “Zooropa” tour, part carnival barker, part arrogant rock star, part trickster hypocrite. Complete with facial distorting soft-ware giving him a devilish cartoon like face, Bono spoke of Putin winning the hearts of America, how we’ve reached a point in our cell-phone addictions where we “spy on ourselves,” and then highlighted the public flaunting of hatred as exhibited in Neo-Nazi, White supremacist marchers in Charlottesville. If some fans were put off by some of this more political commentary, they should have been warned that U2 was just getting warmed up, but that they were also about to get weird.
The road crew dismantled Larry Mullins’ drum kit, following “Acrobat,” and the drummer moved to a small pair of bongos for a largely acoustic rendering of “You’re The Best Thing About Me,” which was an interesting choice for a pop song that had been promoted strongly as the newest album’s first single at the time of release. Which was followed by an even more stripped back acoustic version of “Staring at the Sun,” the tour’s one song from the album “Pop,” a physical expression of the idea that a good song will sound just as engaging played solo on a guitar or piano, without all the big production and special effects. With merely Edge’s acoustic, and the voices of Edge and Bono in harmony, kind of like a post-punk version of Crosby & Nash, the song was lovely in and of itself. But visually, it became something else altogether, as images from the racist Charlottesville marchers and other Neo-Nazi and White supremacist rallies appeared on the screen as the song moved into the second verse, America at its ugliest juxtaposed with the song’s elegant beauty and sweetness.
Which totally set the stage for what came next. Bono vamped a bit briefly about what had surfaced in American politics, before introducing a celebration of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the song “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which had the band spread across the floor of the arena. Bono still on the satellite stage, and Mullins returned to his original drum kit on the mainstage, while Edge and bassist Adam Clayton were on small elevated stages across from one another in the middle of the arena. The large screen brought the image of the four players together, with a photo of Dr. King, which forced me not for the first time to think about the complex nature of the band’s artistic and musical decisions on this tour, which had them playing, while walking, or standing at opposite ends of the large rooms floor. How do musicians make such a tight and harmonious sound while hitting all their staging marks, and making the whole thing seem so effortless and natural? Practice, obviously a lot of practice, and some truly amazing technology… which brings me to the amazing sound and visual quality of the show. I needed my ear protection which isn’t always the case in those vast rooms, but it was plenty loud, and crisp and clear, which is not something I take likely when bands perform in arenas designed for sporting events.
(When I saw one of the two “Joshua Tree” tours I got to in the ancient “Checkerdome” in St. Louis, I remember joking that Edge could have played with a lot less echo in that space because I was pretty sure I was hearing every chord he played at least a half dozen times in that cavernous echo chamber of a venue.)
Altogether for the show’s climax on the mainstage, U2 took it over the top for a great song pairing from their latest album, “Get Out of Your Own Way” which has a taped rapped voice of Kendrick Lamar offering up an ironic version of the Beatitudes as it fades into the intro to “American Soul.” The Irish band’s fascination with America has always felt like a natural, if curious thing. In the “Rattle And Hum” movie we saw the band discovering the roots of American blues and gospel music, adding a church choir to “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and playing a duet with B.B. King on “When Love Comes to Town,” then they offered up the immigrants’ point of view in “The Hands That Built America,” the theme song from Scorsese’s movie, “Gangs of New York.”
But as Bono’s charity connections with George W. Bush and the Obama administrations are being undone by Trump’s budget cutting, it’s clear the band’s connection to the “American dream” is strained. When the band played the Super Bowl half-time show after the events of 9/11, they scrolled the names of those lost in the terror attack on a screen as they played, but with a President who is attacking immigrants, diminishing America’s goodwill spending around the world, and has embraced the “good people” carrying tiki-torches in C’ville, they are still drawn to our better angels, if left holding the bag in the face of a nationalism that diminishes the kind of globalism at the heart of U2’s outreach charities (Red) and ONE.
Which left me with a sense of awkward tension, during “American Soul” as the crew pulled up a huge venue spanning American flag behind the band. Sure I have to admit that the song rocked for the most part, lifting its primary hook from the “Innocence” track, “Volcano.” These days, with Black Lives Matter issues front and center after regular headlines of abuse of people of color by those in authority together with the NFL decision to fine any team when players kneel during the National Anthem, I have to admit that blatant expressions of Patriotism appear to be more partisan and divisive than ever before. So, why are these Irish guys rubbing our noses in our own flag, while asserting a return to the values of liberty, free speech, acceptance of immigrants, ending racial and class divides, and why do I have so many mixed emotions? Maybe that was the point… but for all the times I’ve defended the band against its detractors for their proselytizing and sloganeering, this time I was more than a little confused by the point they were trying to make.
They closed out the concert with a fine, rousing version of “City of Blinding Lights,” with a lifting of the large cage/screen, and the standing pole lights along the center floor’s walkway. It was a fine end to an interesting and often inspiring concert. The band stood together and bowed, and Bono actually said, “Was that as great as I think it was?” and they exited to prepare for the encore we all knew was coming. I sometimes think Bono’s lyrics of humility are necessary efforts to rein in his bigger than life ego and tendency to self-promote that challenges him to indeed “get out of his own way.”
This time, the show took a political turn that was far less ambivalent, in its praise and activism on behalf of women in the recording of Jim O’Rourke’s song “Women of the World,” where he calls for them to “take over, because if you don’t the world will end, and it won’t take long.” Along with the music, the screen carried a serious of feminist messages, including the idea that when you “educate a girl, you empower a community,” and “empowered women, empower women.” Messages that went hand in hand with pre-concert projections that celebrated “Herstory” and “#never again,” along with affirmations of “equal rights,” “freedom, justice, equality” and “give peace a chance.”
The encore itself was far less confusing. While some may have had strong feelings in reaction to U2’s political messages in the past, Bono tended to “preach” a bit more as I recall at the “iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE” tour than he did this year. And they ended the show, as anticipated, around the idea of unity. We need both the right and the left, Bono affirmed, and “we need them talking to each other. We need them to be one,” he offered as the introduction to longtime concert staple and fan favorite sing-along “One.” They followed that with “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” an affirmation at the heart of much of U2’s best music and strongest intentions. As the quiet, and reflective “13 (There Is A Light)” closed out the show, there was a moment of subtle artfulness that belied some of the evening’s more ham-fisted theatrics. Bono walked from the main stage to the satellite where there was a model from the house he grew up in, from the visual display in the earlier scene, with light coming through the windows. As the song reached its mid-section he lifted the roof to let out the over-sized light bulb that had shown above the band in the early section of “iNNOCENCE” tour, representing the stark, rough surroundings out of which the band was given birth. Now, the light returns, to be shared with the world, “don’t let it go out.” Bono quietly walked off, said good night and the evening with U2 was over.
A couple final thoughts. Rarely is a band made up mostly of introverts able to establish and maintain an arena, even stadium-filling appeal with only the power of their music. But Edge, Mullins and Clayton, for the most part spent the bulk of the show comfortably in the shadows, playing dynamically and as a unit, a true quartet, but leaving the high-wire act of engaging the crowd to Bono alone. Edge didn’t step out and play long solos in the spotlight as so many rock guitarist are prone to do, there was no drum solo, very little of the rock star gestures and “follow the leader” concert participation tactics that some bands feel are required to keep such a large crowd engaged. Okay, there was that time when Bono got the crowd to raise their arms and swing them in unison, but nothing as over the top as we’ve all seen before… No, U2 depends largely on its songs, and its connection with its fans, because of its messages, and its sense of purpose. So, you don’t get and hold a crowd’s attention without occasionally overshooting your goal and making an ass of yourself. Bono can and does do that on occasion, but he also appears uniquely conscious of the fact, and while often appearing larger than life, does often reveal a profoundly human sense of being and connection that I think is part of U2’s overall appeal. Certainly that is so for me.
-Review by Brian Q. Newcomb
-Photo 4 by Randy Fleisher