In some respects there are no words which can suitably describe the magnitude of seeing the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour – U2′s first arena tour in over a decade – first-hand, but then that would make for a pretty terrible blog post. Besides, there is SO MUCH to be said about these shows. So I’ll get the easy words out of the way first: This is the best gig I have been to in twelve years of attending live musical performances. Without question. There is no debate. It isn’t even close.
This was almost more like a West End theatre production than it was a rock concert, so meticulously choreographed was the show. Everything is so measured and precise as a narrative is woven through the night taking us from the band’s youth in North Dublin to their present day form as one of the biggest bands in the world in the second part of the set. From innocence to experience, with an enormous screen bridging the two timelines.
The gig starts out normally enough. The arena lights dim as the volume on the PA system cranks up a couple of notches and Patti Smith’s People Have The Power plays out. After several minutes Bono emerges onto the ‘e’ stage, little more than a spotlight acknowledging his arrival. He begins the tribal call out of The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) as he strolls up the long narrow walkway which spans the entire length of the arena floor to the traditional stage, where the rest of the band have assembled and the guitars and drums kick into action. This is a great opening song. I’m not so sure it would be effective anywhere else in the set, but as an opener it sets the tone perfectly.
The first four songs threaten a concert of pure balls to the wall rock and roll. The stage is minimally lit with fluorescent tubes whilst a giant lightbulb hangs above the band, presumably resembling Bono’s childhood bedroom. Both nights followed a similar formula with Vertigo and I Will Follow forming a fierce tandem in songs three & four. The countdown at the start of Vertigo still sounds like such a dumb U2 quirk, but it is such an effective arena rock song. Friday night’s surprising The Electric Co. was subbed out for Gloria on Saturday. The message was that this was U2 at their most youthful exuberance. It was loud, brash and very well might have fulfilled Bono’s promise to turn The Hydro into the Barrowlands, with him having noted that Saturday marked 35 years since they first played the historic Glasgow venue.
Evolution took us from the stage to Bono’s childhood home on Cedarwood Road as the giant video wall lowered over the walkway. This is where we moved from rock show to theatre as Bono literally walked inside the screen down an animated representation of the street. It was a spectacular visual and a triumph of technology, the pinnacle arriving during Until The End of the World when Bono’s larger than life image was projected from the ‘e’ stage onto the screen where The Edge was already playing, creating the image of The Edge playing guitar in the palm of Bono’s hand. This was a 21st Century arena show where artists are having to be incresingly creative to earn ticket sales to supplement the changing habits of music consumption. U2 have arguably long been the masters of this, going all the way back to the Zoo TV tour.
It wasn’t all about the awesome visual effects in the screen, though. Simple images of victims of the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan car bombs gave added emotion to an already powerful version of Sunday Bloody Sunday, with the closing caption of “Justice For The Forgotten”, while haunting footage from a drone flying over the rubbles of a Syrian city added weight to Bono’s plea over the refugee crisis leading into Where The Streets Have No Name. U2 are often criticised for being overly political and overly preachy; they are never going to change and on this occasion they were sharp and on point.
Following a brief section where the entire band played inside the screen – which had earlier exploded into a pop art replica of the Berlin Wall – as various images of their past selves were projected onto the wall, the show moved onto the ‘e’ stage where it really came into its own in terms of song quality. Mysterious Ways allowed Bono to dance with the female of his choosing from the audience – seemingly managing to pluck out the most attractive woman in Fife – and show off the fact that the shows were being streamed online around the world. Desire and Angel of Harlem were true highlights of Saturday night, replacing Friday’s equally satisfying version of The Sweetest Thing. This is the point in the night where it was no longer seating or standing sections: it was all standing.
There was an intoxicating atmosphere inside The Hydro. This had all the intimacy and exhilirating excitement of a gig at the Barrowlands or Tuts. It was sweaty and ripe for a sing-along, and the closing stretch from Zooropa on was laden with hits which allowed the sold out audience to stretch their vocal chords. Pride (In The Name Of Love) has long been my favourite U2 song and it was simply awesome in these shows, the chorus ringing around the arena from tier to tier. With Or Without You was predictably well-recieved, with the subtle white lighting proving just as effective as anything the large screen offered. Bono has always been quite self-conscious about his voice, but on some of the acoustic tracks – particularly Every Breaking Wave – he really excelled in reaching some of the high notes.
Having now looked at previous setlists it seems the encore on this tour has three combinations: City of Blinding Lights and Beautiful Day are staples, then you either get One, Bad and “40″ or I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. While I was aching to hear the Joshua Tree classic again, the former two combinations on Friday and Saturday respectively proved more than satisfying. Bad is such a terrific song, the performance which launched U2 into superstardom, and its refrain moved perfectly into “40″. It’s a song I hadn’t even considered them playing, yet it was an ideal conclusion to the tour’s narrative. It encapsulates the band’s journey and their message wonderfully, and the chorus “how long to sing this song?” was being sung long into the night along Argyle Street.
iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE was a terrific feat of technology. The dedication and preparation that has gone into this show is immense and its payoff is the most rewarding and immersive gig experience I’ve had. But it isn’t all about the impressive conceptual technology; this was a triumph of U2 as one of the best rock bands of their generation and inarguably the best live act touring today. They sound as good as they ever have and still have a great energy surrounding them. This was more than a music concert: it was personal and intimate in a large setting, it was an event, an experience. For all the hype and ego and politics that surround U2 they are still, underneath it all, a band from North Dublin, and on this tour they almost make you feel like it’s home.