The days of stadium rock would seem to be mostly behind us, as the bands that once filled those huge venues wind down, either finishing their careers or moving on to smaller spaces as the audiences dwindle, and few new artists find their way that far up in the ranks. Last year, U2 proved themselves to be one of the few bands still capable of carrying a stadium-sized venue, as their massive 30th anniversary tour for The Joshua Tree packed FedExField and similarly big venues elsewhere across the country. But even U2 has come to recognize the value in closeness to their audience, and their latest tour production for their latest album, Songs of Experience, follows in the footsteps of their last regular tour for 2014’s Songs of Innocence in bringing the band as close as possible to as many of their fans as possible, despite the still large arena spaces that they’re playing.
To do this, the band has created a three-part stage, a setup which made its debut in that previous tour. On one end of the arena is a large main stage like might be seen there for most concert events. Down the entire middle of the floor runs a narrow walkway, which raises and lowers the band over the audience. And on the other end of that walkway sits a smaller, round stage. The result is that regardless of where you’re sitting in the venue (unless, maybe, you’re one of the unfortunates inexplicably sitting behind the main stage, who mostly appeared to have a view of the band’s backs), you’re bound to be close to U2 at some point during the night. The result was still a large arena show, but one as intimate and engaging as an arena show can manage to be.
The band started the night spread out across the arena on the walkway, playing behind giant LCD screens with a track from the new album, “Love Is All We Have Left.” The screens raised for another new song, “The Blackout,” before guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. made their way to the main stage. Bono continued to roam the catwalk for “Lights of Home,” encouraging the audience to hold up the lights of their cell phones (the lighters of the 21st century), before joining the others on stage for a jump back to their early days with “I Will Follow.”
From there, the band played a mix of old and new – “Gloria” (1981) , “Beautiful Day” (2000), and “The Ocean” (1980) led into two autobiographical tracks from Songs of Innocence, “Iris (Hold Me Close)” (written by Bono about his mother, who passed away when he was still young) and “Cedarwood Road” (about the neighborhood where he grew up), which led into an acoustic version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1983). What was perhaps most notable was how well the songs blended together – despite the seemingly disparate styles and the years between them, live they still came together to make a coherent set.
After a brief intermission to set up the gear, the band reappeared on the smaller second stage on the other end of the arena. Unlike the larger stage, this one (complete with LCD floor which changed patterns and images to match the songs) was more of an in-the-round experience, with all but Mullen playing to the audience on all sides. Some of the most energetic songs came during this set – “Elevation,” “Vertigo,” and “Desire” being some of the most straight-up rocking tracks of the band’s career – but they were paired with a full-band acoustic rendition of new track “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” and a stripped-down version of “Staring at the Sun” featuring only The Edge on acoustic guitar and Bono on vocals.
U2’s meteoric rise to fame in the 80s and 90s has turned them into a bit of a love-them-or-hate-them group that has faced derision for some of their moves over the years (such as the possibly ill-conceived notion to give Songs of Innocence for free to every iTunes user whether they wanted it or not), but there is no denying that as a live band they still know how to put on an exhilarating performance. With so much going on, and the band in a constant state of motion, it can be almost overwhelming – if you blink at the wrong time, it can be nearly possible to lose track of where they’ve gone (such as the next point, where they spread out across the venue for “Pride (In the Name of Love),” The Edge and Clayton suddenly appearing on risers at the sides of the audience, with Mullen on one stage and Bono on the other). And even if the newer material may not always hold quite all of the raw appeal or power of their earlier albums, they still made for a strong and compelling live performance.
The band ended the set back again at the main stage for a couple more new songs, “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul,” as well as “City of Blinding Lights” from 2004’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.”
U2 has long been known for their activism, and this time the focus was women’s empowerment. After the band left the stage, a video accompanied by Jim O’Rourke’s “Women of the World” played, urging women to take power. Bono continued with this theme in a speech as the band returned to the stage, which eventually morphed into a call for people on all sides of the political divide to compromise to solve the country’s (and the world’s) issues. This led into a rendition of “One” from 1991’s Achtung Baby, which was followed by two more new songs to close out the night, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” and “13 (There Is a Light).”