Having witnessed every show U2 has put on within Philadelphia’s city limits (including its earliest, Bijou Café, excluding last year’s Joshua Tree anniversary), one had to resist easy comparison between gigs. Favorite-song-filled set lists or tours on the heels of albums preferred have weight, and there’s always a question of youth’s vigor: can the quartet who all but defined passion and consciousness at its start continue the journey with energy and originality? And could they do it without Bono overselling its point with hashtag shout outs, app plugs or societal rants that don’t come through the PA?
The answers regarding Wednesday’s U2 eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE Tour 2018 stop at Wells Fargo Center was, yes, and no.
The men of U2 never slacked in their life-span’s mission to convey ardor, infatuation and, lust – be it the obvious sexuality conveyed through the Bo Diddleyesque “Desire,” the stewing, reminiscing sensuality of “Until the End of the World,” and the respect accorded great leaders – accompanied by The Edge’s signature flame-flickering guitars – on “Pride (In the Name of Love).” There were simpler, quieter moments of rich adoration such as the pulsing “Love Is All We Have Left,” the night’s opening track, and the tune that first showed off the “experience” of the loosely-themed “eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE” thing, and the choices we make toward either ideal.
There were two parts to the tech of this tour: one, set before you in an epic display of A/V and scrim-scaping where the entire length and height of the arena was U2’s stage. Not unlike Roger Waters’ 2017 tour experience, the long scrim (for U2, a spot for yet another stage) became a font of literal and figurative information – facts about the Belfast bombings of the 70s, and the quest to remember the dead as tied to recalling American’s own crisis of racism, the need for women to take over the world. There were so many slogans displayed – and perhaps that was the joke for a band soaked in the oil of sloganeering – that it was dizzying, More effective, however, was the scrim’s simplest imagery: backlit band-member shadows in black-and-white, insistent static, staccato stucco. It was here that phase two of the visual experience came into play with a tour-centric app for augmented reality aspects that allowed said static to become a waterfall, or Bono’s visage to explode into a Terminator-like cartoon.
This was a cool trick, and stunning to behold. The only problem with the visuals at times, was when the band played to the camera in order to stay in time with the effects. The best example of this was, after an elated rock-em-sock-em trio of hits (“Elevation,” “Vertigo,” “Desire”), Bono pulled out his “Mr. MacPhisto” alter-ego from the 1992/93 Zoo TV tour. Using a mwah-ha-ha actor-ish voice, MacPhisto laid claim to all the world’s racist ills (“When you don’t believe that I exist, that’s when I do my best work”), which was menacing fun, but found Bono concentrating on his monitor in which to steady his video devil-face. In these cases, the tech seemed to overwhelm them a tad, which never seemed the case in other out-sized U2 events. A minor quibble, however, considering that what came after that – the rarely-played “Acrobat,” and its tale of dislocation and fake news – spilled forth, hauntingly, with Bono crooning lines such as “Nothing makes sense/Nothing seems to fit” and “Don’t believe what you hear/Don’t believe what you see.”
Rhythmically on point – from the fuzz-bass of Adam Clayton to everything spare and crisp drummer Larry Mullen mustered – with The Edge’s guitar-chestrations forming a wall of sound and spikiness, Bono was given an open field in which to loll and hoot. While an acoustic percussive “You’re the Best Thing About Me” allowed the singer to show off live-chop nuances rarely displayed, the electro-Bond-theme-like “The Blackout” and the arpeggio-filled “Lights of Home” found Bono in a ruminative way with a heartbroken vocal to match. That he and the rest of U2 followed that cool, electronic calm with the mellow harsh-ing “I Will Follow” was a cutting, punkish wake-up, and a reminder of the quartet’s initial kick.
For a band that toyed with the unusual nostalgia of a Joshua Tree tour not-so-long ago, its end moves on Wednesday were to be applauded. Concluding the pre-encore portion of the night with Songs of Experience pot-boilers “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” – to say nothing of the encore’s windily slinky, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” – was brave. Without snarling, catchy choruses, each song was its own atmosphere, and therefore enticed you to listen harder to that which you may had missed as an album consumer. U2 made the point that they were saving their new personal best for last – an explanation of where they were/are 40 years after its start – and found a fan base willingly along for the journey.
U2 returns to Wells Fargo Center for round two tonight at 8 p.m.
Love Is All We Have Left
Lights of Home (St. Peter’s String Version)
I Will Follow (with “Walking on the Moon” snippet)
Gloria (with Van Morrison’s “Gloria” snippet)
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Sunday Bloody Sunday (with “The Garden of Love” snippet)
Until the End of the World (with “Introduction” snippet)
Elevation (Influx Remix Intro)
Vertigo (with “Rebel Rebel” snippet)
Desire (Hollywood Mix)
You’re the Best Thing About Me (full band acoustic)
Staring at the Sun (Bono and The Edge acoustic)
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Get Out of Your Own Way
City of Blinding Lights
One (with “Invisible” snippet)
Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way
13 (There Is a Light)