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U2 – Innocence + Experience in Vancouver

U2 perform at Rogers Arena in Vancouver B.C. (Photo by John Lill)

U2 perform at Rogers Arena in Vancouver B.C. (Photo by John Lill)

U2 caught a lot of unnecessary flak for the unorthodox release of their latest album, Songs Of Innocence. The fallout from the stunt overshadowed the music itself, which was a shame, as it was a solid – often strong album. To their credit, they have not backed down from it. It would be easy for a band of U2’s stature to say “Oh well, let’s just give ‘em the hits.”

With the tour’s theme of Innocence + Experience echoing the thematic material of the album (with a follow-up album Songs Of Experience expected in the not too distant future; the band has been recording new material during their rehearsals in Vancouver), to ignore the new songs would have meant to diminish the structure and impact of the show. Thankfully, they didn’t shy away from the new material for their opening shows at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena on the 14th and 15th, playing seven tracks from the new album (eight if you count “Invisible,” which is on the deluxe version), the bulk of which appeared in the opening half of the show.

There is no opening act on this tour, and the show is divided into two sections – Innocence, followed (naturally) by Experience. Like the album, the show takes a journey back into U2’s past, to the north side of Dublin in the 1970s. The songs cover the range of personal loss (Bono’s mother “Iris”), first loves (Bono is still married to his childhood sweetheart Ali, subject of “Song For Someone”), and awakening to the magic of punk rock (“The Miracle”) all during a time when shocking violence could strike at any time. After a brief video interlude of punk icons, the band returns to journey into their massive success – i.e., The Big Hits.

Bono may have had a few bionic body parts installed after major back surgery in 2010 and his bike crash last fall, but he’s still human and functioning very well, aside from not being able to play guitar. Thankfully, The Edge was not in need of major reconstruction after falling off the stage at the end of the first show. Or, as Bono put it, “… downloading himself into the audience without asking permission.” It was a scary moment that could have had dire consequences for the rest of the tour, but luckily, the guitarist had only a few minor scrapes. After they got their wiggles and jitters out the first night, the second night hit the mark on all counts, often culminating in what felt like a massive arena-wide party.

U2 has never shied away from trying new things with staging, and this time they are even venturing into playing with sound – with the speakers placed near the ceiling of the arena, the intent is to have the sound be as good in the nosebleed seats as it is on the floor. Barring a little muddiness the first night that made it hard to understand Bono when he was speaking, the sound was crisp and clear by night two and should be the new standard for arena shows.

And while they tried to scale down the staging from the spaceship and cylindrical screen on their massive 360 tour, what they’ve come up with for this new tour is still quite impressive. A catwalk connects the main and secondary stages (the “I” and “E” stages, based on their shape), and over the catwalk hang two giant screens, inside of which is yet another stage. Throughout the show the band moves between all three stages, sometimes with Bono alone on the E stage while the band is elsewhere, other times even playing inside the screen.

The screen itself is used to dazzling effect, using a combination of graphics and live footage of the band, the two sometimes mingling. In the most impressive setpiece involving the screen, animated visuals of Bono’s childhood street fly by, while Bono walks along the inner catwalk, appearing to walk down his childhood street “Cedarwood Road.” At a later point in the show, they show off cell phone technology by bringing a fan onto the stage to film them with an iPhone, with the video broadcast directly onto the overhead screen.

The Innocence half of the show contains the most powerful section, as the band tackles the violence in Ireland in the ‘70s. A surprising acoustic version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” shifts into a broadcast of news clips as Larry Mullen Jr continues to play sharp drum hits. “Raised By Wolves” follows, a song about a childhood friend who was a bystander at a tragic Dublin bombing. (The same friend would later fall into addiction and inspire the song “Bad.”) “Until the End of the World” ends the first set as a giant Bono projected onto the video screen, playing puppet master to Edge who is within the screen. The song culminates with visuals of waves washing away all the previous childhood images and the band members themselves in the animated storm, while paper rains from the rafters – not so much confetti as debris littering the streets after a bombing.

After the punk intermission, the band begins the second set within the screen performing “Invisible,” with its “just watch what I can do” message from a young Bono to his father – “I’m more than you know; you won’t see me but you will.” From there, the setlist goes on to show what they did indeed make of themselves, with some of their biggest songs and one final appearance of a new song, the lovely “Every Breaking Wave,” performed solo with The Edge on the piano lit by a mini-galaxy of cell phone lights throughout the arena.

Within the Experience section is also the loosest part of the show, with the whole band on the E stage for relaxed performances of songs from Rattle and Hum (“Desire”the first night, and “Angel of Harlem,” “When Loves Comes To Town” the next to honor BB King’s passing; this was the song’s first performance since 1993, and it was raucous fun).  Things got even looser the second night when Bono pulled a male fan from the crowd to dance with him during “Mysterious Ways.” After an impromptu shout of “Catch me!” the singer jumped into the fan’s arms to be carried back to his bandmates.  As this particular fan was a familiar face at many U2 shows, Bono clearly felt comfortable enough to put himself literally in the fan’s hands.

The setlists varied between the two nights, but whether that is the band still figuring out the best flow, or a typical occurrence for a multiple-night stand remains to be seen. While “Out of Control” was a delight during the first night’s opening up-tempo section, there were other treats for the second night, including “Bad” and the first performance of “Miracle Drug” since 2005. (For U2 setlist nerds – and you know who you are – it is worth noting that the first show was the first U2 concert where “One” was not played since the song came into existence. It did, however, return to close the second show.)

As always, “Where the Streets Have No Name” was a show highlight (and this reviewer’s favorite part of any U2 show), this time starting with a gentle verse from Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” (“Isn’t it nice to hear the Edge just play chords?” quipped the singer) to highlight Bono’s ongoing activism to eradicate HIV.

No U2 show is complete without Bono talking about the causes that remain a large part of U2’s world, as well as at least one mention of current world events. While there were no lengthy speeches (a definite positive for the flow of the show), the singer did riff on “hands up, don’t shoot” during a fresh-sounding “Bullet the Blue Sky.”

The shows were not without a few glitches, but it’s always refreshing to see that even one of the biggest bands on the planet can still mess up. If Bono’s voice sounds a little ragged by the end of the second show, it’s only because he still leaves it all on stage. He may need a second shot at the high notes at the end of “With Or Without You,” but dang it, he’s going to do them.

The band still needed a little guidance from Bono during the new arrangements of a few songs, but it’s nice to see the work in progress, to watch them come together as a band to click musically – these four childhood friends who ended up somewhere they’d only dreamed of when they were teenagers on the north side of Dublin, watching their musical idols for lessons on how to escape to something bigger and better.

Setlist – May 14

The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
Out of Control
Vertigo
I Will Follow
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Cedarwood Road
Song For Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Raised By Wolves
Until the End of the World
Invisible
Even Better Than the Real Thing
Mysterious Ways
Desire
Sweetest Thing
Every Breaking Wave
Bullet the Blue Sky
Pride (In the Name of Love)
The Troubles
With Or Without You

(encore)

City of Blinding Lights
Beautiful Day
Where the Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

Setlist – May 15

The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
Vertigo
California (There Is No End to Love)
I Will Follow
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Cedarwood Road
Song For Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Raised By Wolves
Until the End of the World
Invisible
Even Better Than the Real Thing
Mysterious Ways
Angel of Harlem
When Loves Comes To Town
Every Breaking Wave
Bullet the Blue Sky
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Beautiful Day
With Or Without You

(encore)

Miracle Drug
Bad
Where the Streets Have No Name
One

Alicia is a Midwest transplant who loves Seattle but misses thunderstorms. Her musical obsessions began when her coolest aunt gave her a copy of K-Tel’s Rock 80 album for Christmas when she was 7. She spent many years studying piano and voice, but the force of rock and roll won, so while she still sings in a local chorale, her true musical passions lie more with The Beatles than with Beethoven. When she’s not working at her job in HR, she can be found singing bad pop songs at the top of her lungs … although sometimes she does that