Who is this for? The die hard? The casual listener? The social justice warrior? The MSNBC fan?
If U2, arguably the biggest band on the planet, is playing an arena instead of a football stadium, it’s for them, right? One for them, one for you? Last year’s Joshua Tree football stadium tour was for the fans and this two act concert-cum-musical is for Bono, right?
In addition to the band, I think this tour is for me, the U2 fan that prefers Achtung Baby to The Joshua Tree, someone would rather hear new stuff (8 of the 24 songs are from 2017’s Songs of Experience) than “With or Without You.” I’m in the minority. That may be why the tour is in venues that hold 1/5 of their last tour (I realize playing to 20,000 a night is still playing to a lot of people.).
I do not want the hits. I especially don’t want to hear the 30-year-old hits played the same way they were 30-years-ago. It’s one of the reasons “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was so good on this tour. It’s also the song that highlighted the disconnect between a large swarth of U2 fans and U2 material.
It is so off putting to hear “Wooooo!” from the audience during the intro to “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. On this tour, Larry Mullen Jr.’s iconic drum part is stripped down to just a snare drum. It gives the already heavy lyrics more weight in an imaginative presentation. Other than “I Will Follow,” it was the highlight of the night. It followed the low point of the night, one person emphatically “Wooo!”-ing during the songs intro. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is a blatantly anti-war song about the deadliest incident of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. If there’s one song in the massive U2 catalogue that warrants woooing, it is not “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.
So once again, who is this for? Another memorable moment for good and bad reasons was during “Iris (Hold Me Close)” from 2014’s Songs of Innocence. It’s an extremely earnest song about Bono’s mom. The entire first set (this tour is two sets, “Innocence” and “Experience”, and Bono’s mom plays a huge role in the first part, “Innocence.” The first images we see on the screen after the VR portion are images from brain scans. Bono’s mom died when he was 14 after she suffered from a brain aneurysm.) After playing the song, Bono said he’s a, “Man in his 50s still singing about his mother on Father’s Day.” During the performance of “Iris” two teenagers and a parent took a selfie. The performance was relatively quiet, the only song people sat during the first set. Throughout the night, it felt like there’s something missing between some U2 fans and the subject matter.
One of the reasons for the detachment may be who makes up the audience. A U2 show is just as much about people watching as it is a live music experience. What celebrity will be there? What politician will be there? What celebrity politician will be there? Last night I sat behind an MSNBC host. I won’t reveal their identity since they were not shouted out on stage by Bono. I did sit in the same section as Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. I am comfortable letting you know this since Bono changed a line in “Beautiful Day” from “See China right in front of you” to “See Madeleine Albright right in front of you.” If he’s acknowledging specific audience members, it’s fair game for me. If he’s doing this, how are audience members supposed to be able to disconnect from the outside world and enjoy the show? If we’re thinking about what other former global leader is in attendance, we may be distracted at any moment. But maybe the band is going for distraction?
This tour is also for the person that wants a Vegas style show with all of the possible bells and whistles, maximum distractions. The technical aspects of this tour are second to none. It’s the biggest step forward in stadium presentation since Kanye’s floating stage. Photos will not do it justice. Before the show begins attendees are encouraged to download the U2 Experience and Innocence tour app, open it and point their camera to the screens separating the arena. It’s an interesting use of VR at a concert. After the first song there’s no more VR so you pretty much drain your phone battery before the concert begins. It doesn’t add anything to the music but it does attempt to engage concertgoers on a device they’d already be using.
Even the basic light set up on one of the stages are great. I’d watch a tour doc about just the production, simple stuff like how the drums are struct after the first song to the intricate 3D graphics.
U2 has say in everything in the arena. It was really considerate to add extra screens for the usually neglected sides of the arena. The multiple stage placements make each ticket better (unless you waited hours for floor front row). The inclusion of Joy Division’s “Transmission” during the pre-show music was nice. Was it a subtle nod to their roots and the recent suicide of Anthony Bourdain (they dedicated a song to Bourdain when they played NYC last week)? If it was, it seemed lost on most of the crowd.
U2 does not have a say in everything outside the arena. So it was inconsiderate to start 35 minutes after the advertised start time, especially with no opener, and Metro shutting down at 11 p.m. (The show is two-and-a-half hours.)
U2 has never stopped trying. It’s remarkable they still care, yet alone care this much. They appeared on the most important record of 2017 (Kendrick Lamar’s Damn), they opened their newest record with some autotune experimenting and they’re pushing live presentation forward more than Beyoncé and Nail Inch Nails. If you like a U2 that still trying (and still preaching, Bono is still the front man of U2), this tour is for you. If you want to wooo before an anti-war anthem, you may want to wait for the next football stadium tour.