Last December, I received an email from Bono. Okay, not really; it was a U2.com subscriber email, but in it, Bono talked about the upcoming iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour, which would be a series of two-night stands, and this quote got me a little jazzed up: “We are going to try to have a completely different feeling from night one to night two.”
I do know better than to trust Bono, I swear. Still, there was cause for tentative optimism. It was going to be an arena tour, which surely meant less of a technological behemoth than The Claw from the 360 Tour, which could mean more opportunity for spontaneity. The Elevation and Vertigo tours had featured significantly more setlist variance than 360, and that back-to-basics attitude had been a reignition for U2 after the critically-panned PopMart Tour. 360 was a PopMart for the digital age, only U2's glam days are done, so 360 was earnest rather than painted in ironic commercialism. When the band returned to the U.S. in 2011 after a full year's postponement, they cemented 360 as one of the greatest tours they'd ever embarked upon. Against all odds, the power of the music actually dwarfed the technological behemoth.
Attempting to outdo 360 would be folly. Such an operation would cause localized accelerated climate change in every city it visits. The PR situation following the unsolicited launch of Songs Of Innocence sunk U2 about as far down as they've ever been in the court of public opinion. Another stripping-down seemed the only hope for redemption.
As it turns out, they went as old-school as humanly possible—but only for a single show, a 500-person throwdown at The Roxy in Hollywood in May. For the rest of the tour, they've sat on the fence, dialing back the technology compared to 360, but still leaning heavily on it, as if they don't believe strongly enough in their new songs to let them stand on their own. In the aftermath of this Chicago run, one thing becomes clear about U2: They know what we diehard fans want, but they're not gonna give it to us.
Back up for a second: The more I've listened to Innocence, the more I've grown to love it. In lyrical terms, it's easily Bono's best work since at least All That You Can't Leave Behind, with only one really crappy song ("California") and only "Iris" standing out as The Edge ripping himself off again. I'm not at all suggesting that diehard fans don't want new material; we do. We just don't want all the trappings of U2 trying to project a progressive attitude without taking any actual risks. And also, "City Of Blinding Lights" is a good song and all, but we don't need it starting the encore every night! Come on, why that song of all songs??
In truth, any disenchantment could've been avoided with some simple variations, anything at all that might've surprised me, on the final night of the run. Colored in that admittedly mild disappointment—are you kidding me, I loved every show I went to—I'm forced to acknowledge other flaws, even though it boils down to feeling like Chicago got jilted on this tour. And gratuitous over-analysis.
Night one (June 24th): This is the first time I've ever seen U2 without an opening act, which is just fine by me. The band seems rusty, but despite bronchitis, Bono sounds terrific. I would've written off his occasional cracks as perfectly natural for a man his age if it weren't for the internet. "The Electric Co." generates excitement as the second tune. "Iris" doesn't really work, but "Cedarwood Road" is a highlight of the show. Both "Song For Someone" and "Every Breaking Wave" are incredibly moving and impressively sung. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is bare bones and incomplete; the band is spread across the ramp, Larry crushing a single marching-band snare, very cool new take on the song but between him and Edge they bungle it pretty badly. They've basically stuck with the 360 versions of the Achtung Baby stuff, which is a good thing, except "The Fly" is missed. The end of "Until The End Of The World" (the first-set finale) is an epic roar. Setbreak is an animated video of Johnny Cash singing "The Wanderer" (studio version). We don't even notice that the band is actually playing "Invisible" until halfway through the song; they're mostly obscured inside the giant video screen that's now perched atop the ramp in the center of the room. "Elevation" and "Ordinary Love" from the small stage are terrific. "Bullet The Blue Sky" might be the highlight of the night; the new monologue is my favorite that I've caught yet. All the essential Joshua Tree hits trot out after this, plus, yes, "Blinding Lights" to start the encore. No "One"??? First time that's ever happened with me in attendance. The show was shaky at times, but they were clearly giving it their all. The new video setup is cool, and amazing, and will never, ever be what I care about at a U2 show. The sound is relatively shit. I've seen plenty of shows here and it has generally sounded good for U2. Soldier Field sounded incredible on 360, even in the nosebleeds. The sound wasn't great from any vantage point I tried on this run. What the heck is Bono shouting into the megaphone at the end of "Bullet"??
Night two (June 25th): "Out Of Control" is the second song tonight. (I still hadn't looked at any setlists, but it turns out every show of the tour (discounting the Roxy show of course) had featured either this or "Electric Co." in the two slot, which had been the lone variable in the first set. That's, um, annoying.) The band is much tighter tonight than last night. "Iris" is powerful, "SBS" is nailed and even a bit disturbing at the end. The mini-stage features "Angel Of Harlem" (typical) and "Volcano" (its fourth performance); this again highlights the fact that when the band is loose and spontaneous is when the magic happens. Then, when they go into "Bad", as varying levels of fandom recognize it, this massive wave of excitement becomes a deafening roar. I wasn't at all expecting this so early in the run. Of course they play this a few steps down from its original key and I still can't even come close to the high note myself, but Bono, still struggling a bit vocally, manages it at least once. It really doesn't matter much; the full force of "Bad" is the thing we all chase as U2 fans, and it's here. The show closes with the house lights up and the crowd taking control for "One", another moment I'll never forget. We spend the afterglow talking with a Swedish guy named Marco, a kindred spirit in enthusiastic dancing who was similarly confounded by the sea of amateur videographers on the floor around us. He tells us we need to come to Europe to see U2, because "over there, the whole stadium, everyone is like us".
Night three (June 28th): I don't know how to tell a non-U2 person what it feels like when we hear Bono yell "TWO THREE FOUR" and Edge busts into the "Gloria" riff. Magnify that feeling by they-haven't-played-this-in-ten-years. (I didn't know at the time that they'd soundchecked it earlier in the day; more's my surprise/delight.) This is really about all I require to have a good night, but the band continues to improve. "Cedarwood Road" is more beastly than ever, and Edge tears up "Invisible" with a vengeance previously unheard, at least in Chicago. The mini-stage features three fans onstage at once, including a blind guitarist named Sean who manages to play "Desire" upside down on Edge's acoustic guitar. It's a trainwreck, but loads of fun. Then comes the second-ever performance of "Lucifer's Hands"; the mere fact that U2 is playing b-sides on this tour is kind of a miracle in itself, and this song comes off brilliantly. Bono dedicates "Every Breaking Wave" to his wife, who is at her first show of the tour tonight, and this fact ostensibly also inspires…if you put a gun to my head and ask me what my favorite U2 song is, most days I'll say "All I Want Is You". I haven't caught this song live since 2001, and Jen has never seen it live…it's moments like this when I'm able to abandon thought and cling blissfully to the present. I won't lie, I was sort of terrified that they would play this the following night, the only show of the run we were skipping. So, y'know, it was like my heart exploding for six minutes or so. What can I say? This is a thing that can never be replicated, that can only happen at a U2 show. So I guess this was probably the best show of the run, but night two was very, very close.
Night four (June 29th): I…guess I'm glad this was the show we skipped, even though it was great by all accounts, and they debuted "Crystal Ballroom", another new b-side. Of course I wish we could've hit this one too, but this is all happening in the middle of my busiest two weeks of the year and we needed one night to chill. It appears to be an otherwise standard setlist, puzzlingly similar to night one. Clearly big things were in store for the final night.
Night five (July 2nd): Oops, not really. "Gloria" again (at least tonight they remember how it ends), "Bad" again, "Ordinary Love" again, and "California", yippee. By this time I was aware that they'd been soundchecking "Two Hearts Beat As One"; more's my resentment that they left it on the table, because that alone, or "The Troubles", or "11 O'Clock Tick Tock", or "When Love Comes To Town", or, for the love of God, "Party Girl", or even just rearranging the darn setlist a bit, any sort of surprise for the final night in this town you supposedly think of as a second home or some bullshit.
I know it's a petty way to react. I'm just being honest. And in the end it fades away in the face of the joy this night produced. So many times I looked into the eyes of Edge or Bono or Adam and saw this incredible glow, like a combination of giddiness and…maybe relief. Even after five nights of absorbing gaudy adoration, that gratitude is real. Then there's the palpable excitement all around, folks who maybe only get to see one show on the tour—you get "Gloria" and "Bad" in the same show? You can be pretty sure you picked the right show. And Bono's range was indeed in better shape tonight than at any of the other shows I saw, though still not in peak form I reckon. That factor matters so little, because even hampered by whatever may have been hampering it, that voice can still make the world disappear.
Okay, and "California" wasn't too bad…
When you're a nerd about certain bands the way I am, you cling to anything unusual that they may do, because you've obsessed for so long that the parts that are the same sound so much more the same. I'm not the only one, okay? U2's folly is their belief that you need to bludgeon people over the head with your new music to get them to like it. That's not how things work in the world any more. People get sick of everything, and once they get sick of something they don't give it another chance. They dole out relentless judgments against people they don't know based on information gathered from the internet. You're not going to win anybody over this way.
The only salvation is in the element of surprise. U2 can do this. It's what the fans want, and that kind of enthusiasm infects the curious. If the diehards are happy, and you don't understand why, you want to find out. Therein lies fandom.
Or, maybe that's an outdated paradigm as well; what do I know? But here's another thing: Bono likes to talk about how he wants the technology to bring the band closer to the fans, and on the 360 Tour, that honestly was happening. That massive contraption somehow made huge stadiums look and sound great no matter where you sat. You don't need that crap in an arena, though. For a band like U2, the United Center is plenty intimate.
The bottom line is that the band's enjoying the process, though. If you want to dive even deeper down the rabbit hole of narcissism with the this-is-my-life concept-concert, Bono, I'm along for the ride. You're a dude who embraces the dichotomy of egomania and insecurity and pushes hard in both directions; I've always respected that. You only really want us to relate to your stories, a sentiment I understand painfully well. As it happens, we do relate, in an awful lot of instances, as you've no doubt realized by now.Just try to remember that some of us are compelled to see you as many times as feasible when you tour every four years, because of all the aforementioned reasons that we love you, and like puppy dogs, it only takes the occasional bone to make us happy. But y'know, there's no good reason to be so stingy. That's all I'm saying.