Saturday, June 27, 2015

Visionary Look Back, Forward Creates a Must-See Show for U2 Believe -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

United Center
June 24 and 25, 2015
(also playing 6/28, 29, 7/2)

Spoiler Alert:
Those planning or hoping to see U2 and wishing to be surprised may want to avoid reading this--and seeing the photos--until afterwards. Just know that the show was musically, visually and thematically fantastic, and thus highly recommended. 

What is cool?

Hell if I know?

I actually thought it was really cool when Apple gave everyone U2's Songs of Innocence album last September, saving me from having to buy it (which I would've done even though I could have otherwise heard it freely on Spotify).

But given the overwrought backlash by people acting as if a gallon of the wrong octane milk just showed up in their refrigerator, perhaps well-past its expiration date, for awhile it seemed as though a vast portion of the world's population perceived U2 as anything but cool.

Headlines even proclaimed them, "The most hated band in America."

Well, the haters might be a bit puzzled by the Irish band still being able to play multi-night arena stands in cities around the world: 6 shows in LA, 4 in Montreal, 5 currently in Chicago, 8 upcoming in New York, 6 in London, etc.

None-too-shabby ticket sales for such a despised band, one who the naysayers often labeled as washed up, past their prime, out-of-touch, etc., while their album garnered generally lukewarm reviews.

As I wrote amidst the hubbub back in September, I still loved U2--finding their ambition and exploration of new avenues admirable, if at times imperfect or misdirected--and there was no way I was going to miss seeing them in concert, even (or especially) after having done so 15 times over 29 years.

When tickets went onsale back in December, for what is dubbed the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour--supposedly alluding to a Songs of Experience follow-up to Songs of Innocence, but also with rumors that each pair of shows would be markedly different; perhaps one electric and the other acoustic--I snagged "cheap seats" ($30 each + Ticketmaster fees) to shows 2 and 3.

But once the tour opened in Vancouver last month, I became aware that my seats were not only behind the main stage, but were "Limited View" due to a massive video screen running the length of the arena floor--along with a catwalk to a second stage--which I wouldn't be able to properly see. (The idea of highly-differing shows on consecutive nights didn't come to fruition.)

So a few days before Wednesday's first Chicago show, I snagged a ticket on StubHub for $32 (which had originally been $95 + fees) that although to the side of and a bit behind the main stage, would allow proper viewing of the huge video screen.

And perhaps to the disbelief of the seeming mass of U2 dissidents, I can share that it may well have been the "coolest" rock concert I've ever seen.

And damn near one of the best.


First of all, on Wednesday, and again on Thursday--when I didn't quite get the same visual impact, but with a smaller, simpler video screen and memories of the night before, didn't miss much--U2 simply sounded phenomenal.

Opening with the first song on Songs of Innocence, "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" as Bono initially appeared alone on the second stage, then meandered down the catwalk to his bandmates, the band next went back to their first album, Boy, for ferocious takes on "The Electric Co." (on Night 1) and "Out of Control" (on Night 2).

Though these, and the next two songs--"Vertigo" and "I Will Follow" (both nights)--preceded the dazzling video accompaniments that would reiterate what innovators U2 have been in terms of concert presentation, they served to remind that Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. have been a damned great rock 'n roll band for 35+ years.

In fact, I can't readily think of any other rock band in which only the original members have been together for such a long period.

As far as I understand it, the basic gestalt of Songs of Innocence is that the album forms something of a biographical look back to U2's early days in north Dublin.

As played both nights, forming a thematic, nearly theatrical core to the first half of the show--complemented by the band's actual early songs--are "Iris," a new song Bono wrote honoring his mom, who passed away when he was 14, and "Cedarwood Road," about the street in Dublin where the band members grew up.

During the latter, the long video screen depicted houses on a block, while Bono walked among them by virtue of a catwalk between the two sides of the screen (see photo above).

This was followed by "Song for Someone," newly penned for Bono's wife Alison, but enacted in combination with animation of the singer as a teenager, whose pursuit of her included the writing of such songs.

A new take on an old classic, "Sunday Bloody Sunday," fit in well, as it showed how terror and turmoil were omnipresent in Ireland during the band's formative years, which was reiterated by the similarly-themed new song, "Raised by Wolves."

If nothing else, the inventive way they were presented made the case for "Iris," "Song for Someone" and "Raised by Wolves," being better, more substantive songs than I initially perceived, and the concert never suffered the lull that new and/or lesser songs can often bring.

By the 5-minute intermission in which a recorded version of Zooropa's "The Wanderer" was sung on screen by an animated Johnny Cash, and especially after the end of the show, I came to realize why this wasn't a concert at which a wide variety of alternate songs could be interchanged--though I did hear 5 different ones Thursday (setlist) than Wednesday (setlist)--or why it would have been thematically disruptive for U2 to bring Mick Jagger onstage, although Bono announced he was there on Wednesday. Or the Stanley Cup for that matter, which was in Las Vegas, anyway.

Highly inventive video conceits essentially dictated that the intermission be followed by "Invisible" and "Even Better Than the Real Thing," although in terms of musical storytelling cohesion, "New Year's Day" could easily have picked up where "Until the End of the World" left off at the end of the first set.

A live-video-feed moment with a fan brought onstage during "Mysterious Ways" was a lot of fun, and pretty much emptied the big bag of audiovisual tricks at the point where it could have devolved into just one gimmick after another.

"Mysterious Ways" was followed by two revolving song slots that allowed me to hear "Elevation"--preceded by Bono's shout out to the Blackhawks--and "Ordinary Love" on Night 1 and "Angel of Harlem" and "Volcano" on Night 2.

A beautifully sparse Bono + Edge-on-piano version of the new "Every Breaking Wave" wonderfully led into a raging "Bullet the Blue Sky," and though Bono has a tendency to overly work references to current events into his stage patter, I can't deny I got chills when he mentioned Baltimore, Ferguson and Charleston in the as-powerful-as-ever "Pride (in the Name of Love)."

Though "Beautiful Day" and "With or Without You" were both glorious, I was especially delighted when "Bad" was slipped in-between on Thursday night.

And while first encore, "City of Blinding Lights," was illuminated by a plethora of light sticks, "Where the Streets Have No Name" blistered without any overt visual cues, and show closers "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (Wednesday) and "One" (Thursday) further illustrated that U2 smartly understood when to let the music do all the talking.

In fact, it's the savvy balance that made this probably the best U2 extravaganza I've ever seen.

For after The Joshua Tree tour in 1987 thrilled simply through the power of the music, I felt both the Zoo TV (1991-92) and PopMart (1997) tours--though extremely innovative, groundbreaking and at times breathtaking--suffered for the way the visuals overshadowed the songs I loved.

On their 2001 and 2005 tours U2 scaled back, which was fine with me, and though the U2 360° outdoor stadium tour of 2009-2011 featured perhaps the most gargantuan stage ever created and some uber cool effects, it was the music itself that made it work amidst some forced and/or over-the-top visuals.

But on the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour, U2 seems to really get it right, using cutting edge visuals to augment and enhance the themes of the new album and spotlight the band's rich history--which includes regularly redefining what a rock concert can be--but knowing that at the end of the night, it's the songs that will connect far more emotionally than the animated visuals, no matter how brilliant and original.

Sure, sometimes what U2 does works better than others, and Bono--who glibly(?) referenced himself here as a megalomaniac--has made me cringe at times with his supersized ambitions.

But the fact that they could have sold the same number of tickets with nothing but a barren stage, and saved themselves loads of money, effort and occasional technological headaches, makes me admire more than ever that U2 has never been a band content to do what is easy and comfortable.

Or afraid to attempt the audacious. 

Even when they wind up getting ridiculed for it.

And that, like their current tour, is really damn cool.

I can't wait for Sunday night.

Here's a clip from June 24 posted to YouTube by atu2, that shows the ingenious way the video screen was used for "Invisible":


No comments: