On one of the screens outside Madison Square Garden last night, there was an image that slid through between every couple of ads: an image of U2 with the words “I just got a place in New York” — a lyric from All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s “New York” — and “Welcome Home U2!” The crowd that collected outside beneath those screens was different than the crowds one might find at a typical concert here, or anywhere else. There was a different kind of energy palpable in the air, as though everyone here felt like last night — one night in U2’s eight-night residency at MSG — was momentous. It’s not the same excitement as a normal concert. A U2 concert is something different. Spectacle, sure. But a U2 performance is also, simply put, a celebration of many things at once.
After the massive claw of the U2 360° tour, there was no way U2 could realistically go any bigger. For the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour, things are a little more stripped-back, but that’s a relative term when you talk about U2. The stage was at one end of the Garden’s floor, with a walkway leading through the general admission crowd to a small circular stage at the far end — the “experience” stage to the main stage’s “innocence.” A giant screen hung above the walkway, and that’s where a lot of the show’s scripting played a role.
U2 originally talked of this tour as being split into companion nights — i.e., one night at MSG would be an “Innocence”-themed set while the next would be an “Experience”-themed one, with significantly different music from throughout their career spread throughout. That didn’t happen. The show they’ve arrived at now instead follows an arc within the main set, split between an “Innocence” section and, separated by a short intermission, an “Experience” section. Fittingly, the show began with the four members of U2 together on the mainstage, backlit in red with a single giant lightbulb hanging near Bono. And that was it, for “I Will Follow” and “Vertigo” and the pleasant surprise of highlight “Gloria.” The band has made a big deal about how Songs Of Innocence is a return to their roots, to their personal history and to the punk music that inspired them. Even though that’s sort of what they already did on the Vertigo Tour — which was only the second-most recent album cycle before this, despite being a decade ago — “Gloria” and “I Will Follow” still bore a whole lot of ferocity. The band came out swinging, and it’s stunning to realize that it’s always simply been these four men making all this sound onstage, for almost 40 years. You don’t need to be sold on that if you’re already a U2 fan. If you’re a nonbeliever, seeing it in person might be the kind of thing that actually sways you. There is something elemental about it.
“It’s official. It isn’t Sunday evening — this is Friday evening,” Bono said early on, signaling that the celebration was underway. And then the show passes through a section that seems to be figuring out the same thing you could wonder about as a fan. These four men, still doing this. Even if you witnessed it — or if you’re them, lived through it — how the hell did they get from Point A to Point B? When Bono introduced each member of the band last night, he said where they grew up, gave an anecdotal detail about their young lives. (The Edge had a copy of Marquee Moon with him at their first rehearsal; Larry Mullen, Jr. used to, “when facing a bit of bother,” inform people “If you’re looking for trouble, I will find you some.”) Around this time, the set turned to new songs about their youth (“Cedarwood Road,” “Raised By Wolves”) mixed with old songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that could be thematically linked. During this time is also when we got our first glimpse of the tricks they could pull with that screen. It turned out there was a walkway inside of it, so different members could go inside and become a part of the imagery, like when Bono took a walk down a storybook-esque depiction of a stormy day on the street he grew up on, or when a giant projection of Bono leered down at the Edge during the solo in “Until The End Of The World.” (Which, as one of my personal candidates for the band’s finest song, was a welcome inclusion in the set as always.)
Some of this was really cool, like when the whole band was inside the screen post-intermission for “Invisible” (a surprisingly strong new addition to the set) and “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” But it was, at times, hard to feel like there wasn’t a little too much schtick involved in the new stuff, and that the thread sort of dropped early into what would nominally be the “Experience” section. Aside from the Achtung Baby songs, this section of the set felt primarily dominated by stuff they’d simply play anyway: “Pride (In The Name of Love),” Songs Of Innocence cut “Every Breaking Wave,” “Elevation” (another highlight of the night, though), and “Ordinary Love” with Lady Gaga sitting in at the piano and duetting with Bono. Sure, technically all those could fit in fine there, but there’d be a clearer thematic resonance between Acts I and II if you had stuff “Gloria,” “I Will Follow,” and “Raised By Wolves” counterpointed by something from Zooropa or Pop in the second half. In the context of U2’s career, what says “experience” more than “Dirty Day” or “Wake Up Dead Man” or “The Wanderer”?
Given, these are all nitty-gritty squabbles from someone who, in recent times, tends to view U2 with an overly analytical tough-love kind of approach. I’ve made the argument, and will likely make it again, that the U2 of the 21st century (or, at least, since All That You Can’t Leave Behind) is one in a sort of identity crisis, constantly acting in reaction to what are perceived as recent failures. There were parts you could call indulgent about last night’s iNNOCENCE + eEXPERIENCE show, but there was also something engaging about watching the band try to reconcile their own history, personally and professionally. One of the most striking moments occurred with set mainstay “Bullet The Blue Sky,” during which Bono’s scathing monologue was now a conversation between a younger version of himself and the man he is today. “Hey Bono, have you forgotten who you are? You’re Irish, but you talk like an American.” Now Bono is the man “peeling off those dollar bills, slapping them down,” and the song’s caustic conclusion felt all the more impactful for it.
And, when it comes down to it, when these guys stripped away the bells and whistles toward the end and started the victory lap of major songs, there was no stopping them. Still, all these years later, almost nobody else even approaches this level of the massive, euphoric concert experience. “Beautiful Day” went right into “With Or Without You” for the end of the main set. The screen, as “Beautiful Day” crested into its final chorus, simply had a black-and-white image from the front of the stage, with all four of them in formation, no longer spread out between innocence and experience across the arena floor. It was the most powerful image in a show that, admittedly, had plenty of others; I can’t decide whether its simplicity felt more powerful in relation to what had come before, or because of what it suggests. U2 should stop worrying about U2. A lot of the spectacle was worth it, but the most chills-inducing moment of the night was seeing the four of them lit up on that one stage, with Bono bleeding for “Where The Streets Have No Name” almost 30 years after its release. That’s when the celebration was clearest. That’s when you realize they’re one of the few artists who go beyond putting on a great show. This is the kind of experience that makes you believe things.
Before the encore, the band stayed on the stage for a minute to roaring applause. Bono tried to approach the mic a few times, and then finally managed to say: “Nowhere in the world sounds like that.” It was something he seemed generally moved by. Of course, he was talking about MSG, one more comment in a line of NYC-love that characterized the night. The reality is, though, that nowhere else in the world sounds like a U2 show.