For a group that once loudly and proudly proclaimed that they were reapplying for the job of best band in the world, U2 have faced their share of humbling challenges in recent months: a widely panned deal with Apple that confused and angered iTunes users, a new album released to decidedly mixed reviews (sorry, Rolling Stone!), a bicycle accident that required major surgery and hampered the album’s launch, and a tour that got off to a rather unsteady start. In some ways, the backlash against Songs of Innocence‘s release has been so strong to now merit its own backlash—and may have helped to turn into unlikely underdogs a band that can claim to have sold more than 98 percent of all tickets to 68 arena dates through the end of 2015.
While U2’s power as a live draw seems largely undiminished, they went through great pains in the lead-up to the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour to emphasize that they had no intention of settling comfortably into a rock middle age of filling arenas to play crowd-pleasing-but-rote greatest-hits sets that would include one or two new songs destined to be ignored in favour of beer and bathroom breaks. Walking onto the stage to the strains of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power,” the four men barely let the applause die down before opening with Songs of Innocence‘s “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” one of seven new songs performed on the night. “We’re a band from the North side of Dublin, called The U2,” shouted Bono, straight into Boy‘s surging “Out of Control.” The pummelling “Vertigo” and an energetic “I Will Follow” came next, Bono—whose voice sounded as strong as ever—and The Edge showing no ill effects from their respective accidents.
The original concept—multiple shows in the same city, an “innocence” night and an “experience” one—may have been abandoned, but the evening’s first set still told a story—the story of four boys growing up in an Ireland devastated by religious strife and sectarian violence who found in rock’n’roll music both comfort and a way out. Reminiscing about the group’s first show in Toronto at the El Mocambo, on the night after John Lennon died, Bono recalled before launching into the emotional “Iris (Hold Me Close)” that it was Lennon’s songs that had given him courage when he lost his mother. “Iris” and “Cedarwood Road” provided the first opportunities to make use of the unusually lengthy video screen that split the arena floor: the former was accompanied by images of Bono’s mother, while Bono walked across a catwalk hidden in the screen during the latter, inserting himself into animations that recreated his childhood neighbourhood. It was as effective and visually stunning as anything U2 have ever attempted in concert. On “Song for Someone”, Bono stood alone on the smaller “eXPERIENCE” stage, singing to his younger self projected onto the big screen.
The first set ended with some of the night’s weightiest material: a solemn, perhaps even dour “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” where Larry Mullen Jr.’s martial drumbeat was silenced by a series of explosions that represented the 1974 bombings in Dublin and Monaghan; and “Raised By Wolves,” which closed with a plea for “Justice for the Forgotten” (the fourteen victims who died on Bloody Sunday). After that gloomy sequence, the opening chords of the set-closing “Until the End of the World” felt almost cathartic and were welcomed with a loud cheer from the audience.
If the first half of the concert was a carefully choreographed affair—a necessary byproduct of its reliance on technology-assisted storytelling—the second one was distinctly looser (within the parameters of an arena rock show, of course). Following an intermission that featured a projection of “The Wanderer” (“I went out there in search of experience”), U2 cheekily reappeared through the screen to perform the underrated non-LP single “Invisible.” As the band were settling onto the secondary stage for “Mysterious Ways,” they were joined by an unexpected guest: Jessica, a belly dancer who had shared the same stage with U2 ten years earlier. Jessica accompanied U2 on the next number as well, broadcasting their performance of “Elevation”—the song that generated the loudest reception from the ACC crowd—on Meerkat.
The chaos continued as Bono struck a conversation with a member of the audience who turned out to be the singer of Acrobat, a Toronto-based U2 tribute band featuring Mark Baker—aka @U2BROTHR—on bass. Bono, the Edge, Mullen and Adam Clayton then temporarily ceded the stage to Acrobat for an enthusiastic cover of “Desire” (with Bono helping out his doppelgänger on backing vocals). Things returned to normal with an oddly fitting—considering what had just transpired—version of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” and a stark, moving arrangement of Songs of Innocence‘s “Every Breaking Wave” with Bono joined only by the Edge on piano.
U2 mostly stuck to the hits after that, but even those were not without their surprises: a ferocious “Bullet the Blue Sky” included a long rant about, among other things, conversations that Bono had had in Davos (presumably while in town for a meeting of the World Economic Forum); “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was introduced with a snippet from “The Hands That Built America”; the gorgeous “Beautiful Day”—maybe the finest distillation of U2’s brand of full-throated anthemic pop—included lines from Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” and a few choruses of “Give Peace A Chance.” When “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” finally turned into a closing cover of the late Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” none of the 20,000 fans who had stood on their feet for more than two-and-a-half hours seemed quite ready to leave.
There were moments on Monday when the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour still felt like a bit of a work in progress: the technology worked flawlessly, the sound was remarkably crisp and clear, and the new songs were almost uniformly stronger and more engaging live than on the album, but the dual stages and some of the presentation also meant that Bono often found himself separated from the rest of the group—and the audience’s attention turned away from three quarters of U2. There is also a kind of weariness about U2 in 2015: Bono’s first words to the crowd were almost sheepishly apologetic (“Thank you for sticking with us, Toronto!”), as if to acknowledges the toll that the last year had taken on the band.
Nevertheless, the first of two nights in Toronto was a testament to the fact that U2 are still trying to challenge their audiences, to challenge themselves and to successfully manage a delicate balancing act. They are a band whose most personal material in years is rendered in a lavish, elaborate presentation on arena-length video screens. They are a band whose members still believe in the power of music to change the world even in the face of a collapsing music industry: a message from Stephen Hawking called on the audience to “become a global citizen,” a video described the issue of mother-to-child transmission of the HIV virus, and a long monologue from Bono was alternately warm, heartfelt and deeply insufferable—and ended with the singer shouting to the rafters that “The world needs more Canada. Do not hide your light under a bushel!” Most of all, Monday night was also a reminder that, even wounded, U2 still have few peers when it comes to making a room filled with 20,000 strangers feel as cozy as a neighbourhood pub.
The job may no be longer U2’s to claim, but they’re not about to go down without a fight. Oh, and Bono, about those t-shirts…
The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)
Out of Control
Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio (snippet)/Vertigo/God Save the Queen (snippet)
I Will Follow
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Song for Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Raised By Wolves/Psalm 23 (snippet)
Until the End of the World/Love and Peace or Else (snippet)
The Wanderer (recording)
Even Better Than the Real Thing/Burning Down the House (snippet)
Desire (performed by U2 tribute band Acrobat, with Bono and The Edge on backing vocals)
Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of
Every Breaking Wave (alternate version)
Bullet the Blue Sky/19 (snippet)
The Hands that Built America (snippet)/Pride (In the Name of Love)/Give Peace A Chance (snippet)
Beautiful Day/Instant Karma! (snippet)/Give Peace A Chance (snippet)
Bad/Moment of Surrender (snippet)
With or Without You
City of Blinding Lights
Mother and Child Reunion (snippet)/Where the Streets Have No Name/California (There Is No End to Love) (snippet)
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For/Stand By Me (snippet)