U2 gets better still

The worst concert seats I’ve ever purchased were the nose-bleed tickets I bought for U2’s Elevation Tour in 2001. The gig was sold out, with more than 37,000 people packed into the MCI Center in Washington, DC. Sandwiched into the final row, way up in the rafters, were me and my high-school girlfriend.

It was dizzying to be up that high. Looking down, we could see the full spread of U2’s setup — their long, horizontal stage; the heart-shaped ramp extending halfway into the crowd; the LED video screen stretched behind Larry Mullen’s drum kit; the stage lights capable of projecting designs onto the audience itself. This was the height of technology in the Y2K era, and it seemed to shrink the size of the colossal MCI Center. Once the show started, Bono walked along the ramp during nearly every song, giving front-row access to anyone who happened to be standing close to the catwalk. As the night wore on, I remember thinking that our seats weren’t so bad, even though we remained as far away from the stage as possible. This was U2 doing what U2 always did best: bringing people together, as though the gap between the cheap seats and general admission never existed.

17 years later — almost to the day — I made my way to a courtside chair at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, where U2 played another all-conquering show last Saturday night. Al Gore was sitting in my section. So was T Bone Burnett. Clearly, these were better seats than I’d enjoyed in 2001… and surprisingly, it was a better band, too. Chalk it up to the lesson in humility that comes with losing one’s status as a colossal rock & roll band with chart-topping singles, perhaps. Or maybe Bono’s recent brush with mortality — thanks to a nasty bike accident that nearly cut short his career in 2014 — has made him more appreciative than ever of his ability to sell out an arena, unite a crowd, and play the role of rock & roll pastor to legions of believers. U2’s success seemed like a guarantee in 2001, back when they were the biggest band in the world. Today, it feels more like a hard-won victory. That sort of energy can really electrify a live show, even without the radio airplay U2 has typically enjoyed.

And what a live show it was. The so-called Experience + Innocent Tour is another technological marvel, with the centerpiece being a double-sided, transparent video screen that spans the entire length of the arena’s floor, connecting the main stage to a smaller, oval-shaped b-stage. Band members can walk inside the video screen, thanks to an internal catwalk. They can also walk beneath it, courtesy of another catwalk. It’s a stunning display of electricity and illumination, and it doesn’t overshadow the music as much as enhance it, giving every audience member — particularly those sitting far away from the stage — a good view of the action below.

Arriving one year after the band’s 30th anniversary Joshua Tree Tour, where they played the iconic album from front to back, Experience + Innocence focuses more time on deep cuts and rarities. Instead of staples like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You,” the Nashville crowd was treated to an acoustic “Staring at the Sun,” a rare performance of Achtung Baby‘s “Acrobat” (which the band played for the first time ever on May 2nd, during the tour’s kickoff date in Tulsa), and a double-dose of tunes from their last two albums. U2 pitched a few softballs to the casual fans, too, including “I Will Follow,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “One.” This was a gig for hardcore fans, though, opening up with a one-two-three punch of new material — “Love is All We Have Left,” “The Blackout” and “Lights of Home” — and closing with another pair of tracks from Songs of Experience. Bono knew it, too, smiling patiently whenever the audience took a few seconds to learn the snippets of melody he demanded we sing.

U2 at Bonnaroo 2017 • Bill Foster

U2’s political activism was on display throughout the gig. As “Staring at the Sun” wound its way to a close, the video screen began broadcasting footage of the rallies in Charlottesville. The effect was unsettling, as clips of white men carrying torches (many of them wearing “Make America Great Again” hats) gave way to shots of those very same men making Hitler salutes and beating up their counter-protestors. It was a dark moment, connecting the central theme of “Staring at the Sun” — a sort of willful blindness — to the ignorance of bigots everywhere. Then, as the band kicked into the opening chords of “Pride (In the Name of Love),” the video footage changed dramatically. Clips of women’s marches and civil rights demonstrations filled the arena instead. U2 spent more time than usual vamping the song’s intro, giving the audience enough time to adjust to the change in the mood. Then, as Bono often does, he demanded we sing along, shouting our collective approval for love, inclusivity, and those who fight for both.

It was one of the brightest moments in a show filled with supersized sparkle, and it’s those moments — the places where U2 identifies a problem, then enlists everyone’s help in rising up against it — that make the band as vital as ever.

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