Friday, May 25, 2018

Two Nights of Love and Light: Even Without Some of Their Best Songs, U2 Delivers a Wonderful Experience -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Experience + Innocence Tour
May 22 & 23, 2018 (both shows seen)
United Center, Chicago

Bono has been one of the world's most famous people for decades, arriving on the public stage with U2's debut album, Boy, when he was just 20.

Not long after that came rock stardom, superstardom, mega-stardom and--eventually--hobnobbing with world leaders.

U2 continues to sell-out stadiums worldwide, 42 years after the band's formation in Dublin, with the original members--Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.--still intact, so the singer's life has likely seemed quite enviable.

Success, acclaim, vast riches, philanthropy, social activism and his childhood friends forever alongside.

When people use the term "rock star" as a glorified acclimation, Bono--albeit with seemingly a single woman (his wife, Ali, whom he dated as a teen and married in 1982) and without known chemical excesses--is essentially the archetype.

But when he was just 14, Bono--then still known by his birth name of Paul Hewson--saw his mom die suddenly, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while attending her father's funeral.

Various U2 songs over the years--including first single "I Will Follow"--have touched on this grim reality, but none more acutely than "Iris (Hold Me Close)" from 2014's Songs of Innocence album.

That song, and the same record's "Cedarwood Road"--about Bono's childhood residence--forged the emotional heart of the following year's technologically inventive Innocence + Experience tour.

And even after U2 put out the companion Songs of Experience album late last year--ostensibly chronicling the band's maturation--"Iris (Hold Me Close)" and "Cedarwood Road" are prominently reprised on the current Experience + Innocence tour, which I attended both Tuesday and Wednesday at Chicago's United Center.

Speaking prior to former song, Bono even called the evening(s), "a boy's search for his mother."

Candidly, those two songs, and the several SOI/SOE "love" and/or "light" tunes, seemingly about Bono's mom, healing himself and/or healing the world--the opening "Love Is All That We Have Left," "The Blackout" (with a "when the lights go out" refrain), "Lights of Home," "Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way" and the closing "13 (There Is a Light)"--are not the show's musical highlights.

But they aren't terrible, and Bono apparently needs to sing them, and given all the rock 'n roll therapy he and his band have provided me for 35 years, I'm happy to give him that.

And while the floor length screen that the quartet can play within, under and/or use for accompanying imagery isn't quite as ingeniously woven through the show as in 2015, the concerts were visually dazzling and demonstrably proved that as the members approach 60, they can still rock.

Sans any sidemen, touring musicians, background vocalists, etc., U2 blitzed through "I Will Follow,""Gloria" (Tuesday only) and "Beautiful Day" with the vigor of punks in a garage.

A stripped down "Sunday Bloody Sunday," with its opening couplet of  "I can't believe the news today / I can't close my eyes and make it go away" was particularly powerful on the heels of the Santa Fe, Texas high school shootings.

And especially given my Night 1 proximity to the "B-Stage," romps through "Elevation" and "Vertigo" were positively thrilling.

Much of the "news" about this tour comes in what U2 isn't playing.

After their 2017 stadium tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, no songs from that bandmark album are showing up this year--i.e. no "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" or "With or Without You"--nor are live staples such as "New Year's Day" or "Bad."

As these were my 21st & 22nd U2 concerts, across 32 years, I didn't mind some of the tent poles being eschewed.

The Irishmen have always been good at amping up even their more mediocre material--in this case "The Blackout" and "American Soul"--while "You're the Best Thing About Me" and "Get Out of Your Own Way" are genuinely solid new songs.

So in the parlance of an evening's entertainment within the eroding rock music idiom by a band that has meant a whole lot to me for much of my life, I honestly feel that U2 did enough--musically, visually, emotionally--for me to call these shows fantastic.

@@@@@ isn't a gift. 

That said, as discussion among U2 acolytes, I feel the structure of these shows hews too closely to those of 2015.

Though it sounds great, "Until the End of the World" could probably be well replaced, and while meaning about what I said above about granting Bono leeway, as narrative the Iris/Cedarwood combo feels a bit "been there/done that."

Anything I was supposed to glean about U2--and all of us--gaining "experience" was largely lost on me, and I will take great songs over thematic ones any day.

"Pride (in the Name of Love)" was fantastic, but--particularly on Night 2--I could have left the building after it without missing much.

Of the 6 songs following it, only "One" is truly among U2's best, and the closing couplet of "Love is Bigger than Anything in Its Way" and "13 (There is a Light)" felt redundant and overly low-key to end the night(s).

While on one hand admiring the band for resisting "Where the Streets Have No Name," I thought the anthemic song--my U2 favorite--would've fit in rather naturally after "One" or at the very end.

Obviously, no one mandates my U2-fer repeat attendance, and even with only one setlist change on Wednesday--the new "Red Flag Day" for the old "Gloria"--I'm still glad to have gone to both shows.

Tuesday I saw the band up close, but given my vantage point, not the screen. Wednesday I got the full A/V effect, though not the thrilling intimacy. 

But one consistent complaint I have about U2 in concert is that they don't audible enough, or make each performance unique.

I know that unlike favorites such as Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, who change things up considerably every show, the band--in part due to technical considerations--stays pretty locked into a structure and set list.

And as they should delight anyone attending any one show, this isn't a major deficiency.

But at this point, U2 has fans who follow them around, who see them at least twice per tour, who ravenously read the setlists and who seek out clips of rarities on YouTube.

Especially given what they're typically leaving out of this tour, why not trot out "New Year's Day" one night, or even "Walk On," "Exit," "Spanish Eyes" or something that would really elicit a "Wow!"

They did play "Desire"--complete with a return of Bono's MacPhisto devilish alter ego--"Acrobat" and "Staring at the Sun," which haven't been heard in years, and all sounded great. 

But Wednesday was the day before Bob Dylan turned 77, so why not surprise with their cover of "All Along the Watchtower" from Rattle & Hum, or even "Hawkmoon 269," which they wrote with him.

This may sound like a bit of whining, but though I doubt U2 will ever see this review, I really mean it constructively.

The band, and this show, are great, but would be even better if loosened up a tad.

While I really can't rue Bono ending each night with a plaintive ode to his long-lost mom, why not an ebullient rocker to follow the darkness?

Perhaps it might not have made perfect sense given the narrative thread, but I doubt anyone would've been unhappy to sing along with "Where the Streets Have No Name" before heading to their cars.

And this even includes Bono.

"I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside."

Sure sounds like a song of experience to me.

1 comment:

Ken said...

I think, for whatever reason, this is one of your better reviews. I really enjoyed it. Really enjoyed some of your phrases i.e. "vigor of punks in a garage". Your last criticisms seemed very even handed and constructive especially about including a Dylan tune and ending on a rocking note.