U2 are currently on the road, bringing their usual arena-ready spectacle around America as part of their eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour, promoting last year’s Songs Of Experience with the answer to the show they put together in 2015 behind Songs Of Innocence. In the coming weeks, there are going to be several of the gigantic, euphoric shows we’ve come to expect from them over the years. But last night, they took a moment to do something else. Last night, they played a venue far smaller than normal when they took over Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater.
The last time U2 did something like this in New York was way back in 2000, when they played the midsize Manhattan club Irving Plaza. So when the Apollo show was announced, it naturally ignited some curiosity: There is no possible way they could replicate their normal show in a space like the Apollo, so what sort of U2 gig would it be? Would they just play the usual setlist without all the big room bombast and theatricality? Would they dust off a bunch of deep cuts? Ahead of the show, Adam Clayton told Rolling Stone that it’d be “real old school,” featuring songs the band could “do in a stripped-down production and musical setting”; he added that “Edge has got some radical ideas” for the setlist.
Now, when U2 talk about doing something radical with their show or albums, it is typically not as jarring as they might make it sound. For certain fans, like myself, you read that and wish there’s a chance they’d use the intimate setting as a chance to explore semi-lost gems like “Your Blue Room” (one of their best non-album tracks but also one of their best songs, period), or something from their criminally underrated 1993 release Zooropa. Even if that’s a particular pipe dream that had no chance of happening, it was still a different kind of excitement, walking into the Apollo wondering exactly what we were in for.
U2’s Apollo show was another installment in a series of periodic shows that SiriusXM puts together, often managing to get a big name artist to do a special underplay. The crowds are always a mixture of SiriusXM subscribers — elated superfans, as it appeared in this instance — and celebrities. (You could catch the likes of Carson Daly, Jon Bon Jovi, and Andy Cohen milling around last night.) The Apollo is already a fairly small space; for this show, the floor was standing room only and it actually approximated the feeling of the implausible chance to see U2 in a club in 2018.
Accordingly, the show opened with them going back to their roots. Walking onstage matter-of-factly and with an uncharacteristic lack of fanfare — no big intro song, just the four guys calmly striding out — U2 kicked the whole thing off with a run of three Boy selections: “I Will Follow,” “The Electric Co.,” and “Out Of Control.” None of that is super unusual for latter-day U2 performances, but it remains a minor thrill to hear them revisit their earliest material, to hear them still be able to charge through these brash, youthful compositions predating all the global fame and success.
This was also a signal. “Punk band at the Apollo,” Bono kept repeating in a sing-speak ad-lib after “Out Of Control.” And that’s the version of U2 that showed up last night — U2 as rock band. That being said, it’s not like they spent the whole night delving into their work from the first half of the ’80s. Staying true to their promise after last year’s tour celebrating 30 years of The Joshua Tree, the setlist featured absolutely zero songs from their landmark 1987 masterpiece. It also included only a single song from the ’90s.
Instead, it was a show that drew a through line from the wide-eyed post-punk of their youth to the riff-driven cuts from their 21st century albums, using those Boy songs as a jumping off point for a run through material like “Beautiful Day” and “Vertigo” and “All Because Of You” and recent additions like “Get Out Of Your Own Way” and “American Soul.”
Regardless of how you feel about that kind of setlist, there’s something to be said for the sheer prospect of this show. U2 are one of the arena/stadium conquerors, one of those artists so ubiquitous and impactful that four men can walk onto a stage and keep thousands upon thousands of people enraptured for two hours. I’ve seen them do that before. What I haven’t seen is the rare occasion when they bottle that back up into a place that’s been far too small for them for decades now. That almost seems combustible, as if a room the size of the Apollo is too compact to hold the songs that are used to expanding outwards as far as they can go.
It wasn’t the exact same approach U2 take at their normal shows; there was a rawness to the Apollo set, partially due to the songs they chose but also partially due to the fact that they seemed to be playing without the same prominence of backing tracks that they often utilize to flesh out their more lush material without having auxiliary musicians onstage. But even so, the fervor this band elicits from people is a hell of a thing to witness in the confines of a theater. You could see it as soon as they launched into those Boy tracks; you could see it when big singalongs like “Beautiful Day” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” came around mid-show.
Never ones to shy away from mythologizing New York or the history of American music in the 20th century, Bono did take a few moments to acknowledge their surroundings, to nod to what he called “a sacred place for music.” Later, the band would go all-in on this for the show’s first encore, during which they did a three song run from 1988’s roots-obsessed Rattle And Hum. The backdrop curtain rose up to reveal a horn section, which turned out to be none other than the Sun Ra Arkestra, who subsequently backed up the band for four songs.
Naturally, there was “Angel Of Harlem,” because how could they not. That sounded great, but may have been bested by “Desire” right after. The most unexpected song of the night might’ve been their rearrangement of their old B.B. King collab “When Love Comes To Town.” While Rattle And Hum isn’t always remembered as U2’s strongest moment, there was something fitting about all this — U2 revisiting their love letter to American music, in a hallowed space for that music.
Bono didn’t talk a ton. But he did take a few moments to allude to the state of the world, the news. In speaking about recent times, he said, “We’ve lost a few inspiring people … and gained some useless people.” This came amidst his introduction of the final song from the first encore, which turned out to be “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” Recalling how they’d written the song after the death of Michael Hutchence, the track was revived in honor of Anthony Bourdain, and the other recent and tragic deaths. It was by far the most moving moment of the show.
If you wanted to nitpick you could otherwise argue that there were some missed opportunities considering how rarely this sort of circumstance is repeatable for U2. They could’ve gone deeper and stranger with setlist choices, they could’ve broken their “No Joshua Tree” rule just to see a smaller room shake with the power of “Where The Streets Have No Name” live. But that’s not really what it was about. Any given U2 show has the paradoxical quality that comes with a performer who stands so far away and in front of so many people and is somehow still able to make you feel as if he’s communicating directly with you. There’s a magic to that.
Seeing that sort of artist in the Apollo, with some of that mysticism put away for the night — that does something else. U2 were relatively close to everyone in that room. And they brought some of their most direct songs, some of their brightest choruses and most universal sentiments. By the time the show drew to a close and the band played through the night’s penultimate track, “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” that same overwhelming and euphoric effect of their usual shows was there. But it didn’t come from the same place. It didn’t come from that feeling of watching something larger than life unfold in front of you.
It came from the sense that, this time, all of that energy had been corralled into a small, fast-paced party amongst friends, that the band was engaging us in a loose and breakneck conversation. There was something surreal about that, to see U2 in a new light in a different room. In that sense, it didn’t matter what songs they played or didn’t play. The experience still felt something you’d maybe never come across again.