By Christopher David
Being a U2 fan requires patience. Lots and lots of patience. Typically, the Irish foursome will hit the studio, record a bunch of songs, sit on them for a while, go back, and essentially rewrite them. This has happened numerous times before look no further than “Vertigo,” the band’s monster 2004 single, which spent the first two years of its life as the politicallycharged “Native Son” before the band decided to take it somewhere else entirely. As a U2 fan of nearly thirty years, I have come to learn the band’s process and to remain patient (…barely) and confident that the band will, as it always has, emerge with a record full of heart and complexity, as well as a tour that sets a new standard for how arenas can be utilized to bring massive numbers of strangers together in a previously unthought of way.
My combination of patience and confidence paid off during U2’s five night stand at the United Center in June and July.
U2 tours have always aspired to more than just a cookie cutter set of twenty or so well known songs dropped into whatever arena happens to be the host on a given night. If you know the band well, you already know that U2 shows tend to be more like globetrotting art projects, reaching toward some sort of new ground in an effort to, as the band has often remarked, get closer to the fans. And indeed, every tour since 2001’s Elevation has seen the band selling lower priced general admission floor seats, as well as reinventing staging to span large amounts of real estate on the arena floor in an effort to get more people close to the band members as they stalk the catwalks and stages. U2 shows are events to some, deeply affecting on a nearly spiritual level, and to others, just a great time with a band that prides itself on delivering an unforgettable show. As such, the enthusiasm of a U2 crowd tends to influence the potency of the show itself, elevating a good show to a great show, a great show to a legendary one. Fortunately, U2 fans are nothing if not enthusiastic, and for those five nights at the United Center, fans delivered everything they had, with the band giving it right back.
The iNNOCENCE & eXPERIENCE tour (dubbed ‘i+e’ for short) landed in Chicago on June 24th, and for each subsequent night (6/25, 6/28, 6/29, and 7/2), the band took full advantage of its stunning new stage, another Willie Williams crackerjack designed to integrate technology in the most visually dazzling but thematically organic way possible. U2 tours tend to run on a theme, from Zoo TV’s media circus to Elevation’s focus on heart and soul, and i+e is firmly rooted in the band’s exploration of innocence and experience as themes with a capital T, spawned from 2014’s Songs of Innocence. ( Songs of Experience, the second half of this idea, is supposedly set for release this year or next, though again…that patience thing.)
Innocence digs deep into the band’s personal histories, of growing up in a country often on the brink of civil war while discovering first loves, rock n’ roll, and what it means to learn who you are. To that end, it made sense that the first ‘act’ of the i+e show leaned on that new material, from opener “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” to the longing verses of “Song for Someone” (written for Bono’s then girlfriend, now wife of 30+ years, Alison Stewart) to the singer’s witnessing an IRA car bombing as a child, documented in the searing “Raised by Wolves.” The new material stood tall (and indeed made sense) alongside welcome revisitations of classics like “I Will Follow,” “Gloria” (played for the first time since 2005), “The Electric Co.,” and “Out of Control.”
Images can tell a powerful story, and the imagery accompanying the selections from Songs of Innocence was integrated into the live show more seamlessly than anything since 1993’s ZooTV tour. The technological star of i+e was the hollow, movie screen style cage hovering over the massive catwalk, allowing the illusion of Bono walking down the aforementioned “Cedarwood Road” as images of his childhood blew past. The cage became a facsimile Berlin Wall during the show’s intermission (a nod to the Achtung Baby and Zooropa days), and turned into a living soundwave for “Invisible” as the four band members appeared through blips and static, housed inside the screen. The devil is in the design details for this tour, as the screen’s position over the catwalk that spans the arena floor (and connects the main stage with the smaller “e” stage at the other end) is such that it can be viewed equally on both sides of the venue. Car bombs erupted in violent flashes at the conclusion of a funeral march remaining of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the most powerful that particular song has sounded in years, as images of the fallen appear among pencil sketched Dublin neighborhoods. Bono’s face appeared on the screen, larger than life, as Edge walked inside the screen during “Until the End of the World,” allowing a seeminglygiant Bono to coyly spit water at what appears to be a very tiny guitar player.
In spite of an often times highly political show, the band was clearly having fun with the stage design, to an even greater extent than 2009’s 360 tour, and that playful spirit was evoked during the more spontaneous moments of the set. Fans were brought on stage to play guitar, sing along, and dance on the catwalk with Bono as the Edge pumped out the wahwah drenched riffs from “Mysterious Ways.” On four of the five nights, these lucky fans got to broadcast a tune via Bono’s phone using Meercat, a new live streaming app that allows for realtime comments by fans viewing the action at home. The “e” stage saw a lot of excitement over the course of U2’s week in Chicago, treating fans to vibrant versions of old favorites like “Angel of Harlem” and “The Sweetest Thing,” as well as newer, deeper cuts like Innocence extras “Lucifer’s Hands” and “The Crystal Ballroom,” the latter a fan favorite that traveling packs of U2 devotees had been hoping for since the tour kicked off in May.
The second act of the show rode high on hits “One,” “Beautiful Day,” “City of Blinding Lights” (one of the more visually stunning moments as bars of fluorescent light descend to the stage in abstract patterns), “Bad,” an elegantly sad piano take on current single “Every Breaking Wave,” “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the rarely played “All I Want is You” the list goes on. The politics were present but contextually sensible; a nod to Project (RED) led into a poignant acoustic cover of Paul Simon’s “Mother & Child Reunion,” which led directly into “Where the Streets Have No Name” as the stage was bathed in red light was one of numerous highlights. Though previous tours have certainly mixed this cocktail to great ends, the balance of visuals, music, and message was honed to a science this time around, solidifying the new songs as worthy of their place in the set and providing older, frequently played tunes like “Pride” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” with a vibrant urgency that resonated even with longtime fans who may have heard them live many times before.
For the cynics, it’s easy to think of U2 as rock n’ roll dinosaurs, on par with the Stones (who, in my opinion, are still killing it, but that’s a conversation for another day) as a simple result of age and marketing clout. But that would be oversimplifying things if maintaining their position as an arena ready beast every 45 years was U2’s only concern, they really wouldn’t need to go to so much trouble to reinvent the wheel each time they hit the road they could coast on their singles until…well, until the end of the world. There are a lot of great live bands out there certainly too many to list here. But even among the greats, there are few who aspire, with each new chapter, to something new, something exciting, something to keep the spirit of music’s connection to people not just alive, but fresh. As one fan from L.A. (who was traveling to all of U2’s North American shows with his girlfriend, a lifelong fan) told me, “I always knew U2 were probably a really great live band. But I had no idea until I saw them with her for the first time in May, and afterward, I looked at her and said, ‘okay. I totally get it.’”
Do yourself a favor, friends. If U2 come back to the states in 2016 as they’re rumored to, go see them, even if you’re not yet a fan hell, even if you’re a skeptic. I’ll lay even odds that, by the end of the night, you’ll get it, too.
Check back soon for pictures and videos from each night!
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