U2 | Bridgestone Arena | 26 May
Deep down, hardcore U2 fans would like to start their own independent state, based on the simple concept that gave the band its name: Everyone is welcome. That’s the primary difficulty in being a U2 fan in this day and age; as much as you want broad inclusiveness, does that mean you’d welcome Donald Trump? Mitch McConnell? Jordan Peterson?
Personally, I’d bank on those assholes staying loyal to the United States, or as everyone seems to call the country nowadays, America. Therein lies the other difficulty in being a U2 fan: Bono ’s continuing obsession with America, a country which, as a citizen of it, I’m not too fond of these days. I’m grateful for the privilege I’ve been afforded by being born a white man on its soil, and I’m fond of the life situation I’ve managed to carve out of it in little ol’ Milwaukee. What the rest of the world is discovering right now, though, is that this country is as much of a shithole as any other. It’s every bit as liable to elect a psychopath to its highest office as any other country. Its policies are markedly more cruel towards anyone not of Western European descent than most other countries in the world, and this has been the case for its entire history.
All of this is becoming very evident to everyone except, seemingly, Bono. Bono is an idealist to the bitter end, in every facet of life, as far as I can tell. Who could blame him? It has served him incredibly well thus far. He still has the audacity to trot out no fewer than ten songs from the last two albums every night, and zero songs from The Joshua Tree any night, of the e+i Tour. (Note: i+e happened in 2015; this year was e+i. Best of luck.) Every middle-aged musician insists that their new album is The Best We’ve Ever Done; I think Bono, backed by the rubes at Rolling Stone, really believes it. U2 hasn’t played this much new material nightly since the PopMart Tour—and back then, it was justified. As much derision as was leveled at PopMart, U2 was still culturally relevant, and those songs were among their best, even though they don’t seem to believe it any more than the critics did at the time. Plus, they damn well played plenty of oldies as well, including a generous helping of Joshua Tree.
I’m in full support of leaving Joshua Tree off the table. They just toured last year playing the whole dang thing every night, and personally, I’ve heard all those songs plenty. Still, you have to realize who your audience is. There are no young people at U2 shows, unless they were dragged there by old people. There are presumably some not-young people who are moved by the new material, but if you boil it down, the crowd is made up of two factions: casual fans, and diehards. What we diehards really want are b-sides, rarities, sentimental favorites, and yes, even new songs, if they’re any good. Above all, variety. We want to go to multiple shows and have different…Experiences. The casual fans are there for the hits, especially The Joshua Tree. The question becomes, on this current tour: Who the hell are you guys playing these shows for?
In 2015, Bono had promised “a completely different feeling” between same-city nights of the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE (i+e) Tour. Based on that proclamation, I’d bought tickets to four of the five Chicago shows, only to discover that Bono was full of shit. By the final night of the run, I’d essentially lost faith in U2. They’d set a precedent beginning with PopMart that final nights in Chicago were special occasions. Stops were pulled, bust-outs were busted, the unexpected was expected. Chicago was where I’d seen the best U2 shows of my life; it was special to U2, once upon a time, but beginning with i+e it abruptly became just another nameless town. Bono had promised to play for the diehards, but ever since that promise, he never has.
Instead, in 2018, Bono’s performing just for himself, which is an odd sort of audacity for a man who has spent most of his career trying desperately to cater to everyone at once. He threw the casual fans a bone with last year’s Joshua Tree anniversary tour, and diehards could certainly revel in finally catching songs like “In God’s Country” and “Exit” live, but in reality, that tour was a mere stopgap to allow U2 to retool part two of i+e in the wake of Trump. Experience, as it turned out, hadn’t prepared U2 for that.
This brings us to the present day, and my own experience with e+i, beginning with the second Chicago show. Expectations are of course unavoidable. We can temper and minimize them to a degree, and in the process create a whole new set of potential letdowns. I’d gone into my first listen to the new album, Songs Of Experience, with what I thought were the lowest possible expectations, but nothing could’ve prepared me for that first song, “Love Is All We Have Left”, the epitome of all Bono’s lamest impulses condensed into two minutes. Within 30 seconds, fucking Auto-Tune. (Dr. Evil voice) I’m hip! I’m with-it! “Love is all we have left,” sings Bono; okay. “A baby cries on a doorstep,” he continues. Seriously? Only Michael Jackson could get away with a lyric like that, and this is by no means the worst moment on the album. Nevertheless, even though I’d avoided finding anything out about this tour, I was resigned to the likelihood that this song would open every show, and who cares; it’s two minutes.
Only slightly disconcerting was the fact that, three years later and with a whole tour in between, they’d gone back to the same exact stage setup as i+e. A few improvements were revealed as the show went on, but still, this was very un-U2-like. I get it; it’s meant to be the second half of the same grand concept. Still, having the exact same animated backdrop for “Iris” and “Cedarwood Road”, the same pretend bomb blast, the same stripped-down “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, we already did all this. (“Until The End Of The World” they can play at every show for the rest of their lives and I won’t mind.)
As usual, some of the new material I gained a new appreciation for. Ever since the triumph of the Elevation Tour, new U2 albums feature certain predictable tropes. The Rocker on Experience is called “The Blackout”, and it worked quite well as the “Elevation”/”Vertigo” surrogate to start the show in earnest. There’s always at least one Big Crowd Singalong Hook to provide that opportunity for the band to bathe in the reassurance that a percentage of the audience at least sorta knows the new material (or, the less cynical perspective: that these are communal band-fan bonding moments). The “Heeeeeeeeey now” portion of “Lights Of Home” fills this role nicely, and whereas the album version plods along dully, it’s much more energetic live, particularly when we all get to chanting the “See yourself to be yourself” part. Hey, “Red Flag Day”; didn’t see that one coming! We’re off to a surprisingly good start, all things considered. Bono sounds terrific. “I Will Follow” is what it is. Ditto for “Beautiful Day”. I’ll never complain about “The Ocean”; it plays the exact same role as it did on the Vertigo Tour. And then the rest of the pre-intermission set, virtually identical to i+e. Um, okay.
The coolest part of i+e, other than maybe seeing the admittedly mind-blowing technological wonder of the stage setup itself, was the mini-stage portion, which featured some variety night to night. On e+i, it’s identical every night. Boo. However, the stripped-down take on “You’re The Best Thing About Me” is fresh; I actually kinda like the song now. And to finally hear them play “Acrobat”, that’s outta nowhere. Bono’s reborn McPhisto act is delightful. I’m in the throes of nerddom and they whip out a Bono/Edge duet of “Staring At The Sun”. I don’t have a good reason why but this brings me to tears.
Following one of the biggest emotional surges I’ve ever experienced at a U2 show, by far the biggest letdown. Enraptured with the overall crescendo of feels, I’d forgotten all about “Get Out Of Your Own Way” and “American Soul”, possibly the two worst U2 songs the world has yet been subjected to. The former, I get it, I am fully onboard with the bent and the general message, I give Bono’s intentions the full benefit of the doubt, but I can’t get behind the lyric “The slaves are lookin’ for someone to lead them/The master’s lookin’ for someone to need him”, I badly want someone to explain to me from whose perspective that is an okay lyric. (This song has its own Big Crowd Singalong Hook, too.)
And the latter. Every time I hear Bono shout “REFU-JESUS” I feel like I need to rethink my life. I do not wonder why they dropped this song from the set for the Europe leg.
The set ends, every night, with “City Of Blinding Lights”. I like this song. I believe U2 have played it at every regular full show they’ve done since it was released (i.e. not the aforementioned Joshua Tree tour). It’s not that fuckin’ great of a song.
Prior to the encore, a song plays on the PA. Its lyrics are: “Women of the world take over/’Cause if you don’t the world will come to an end/And it won’t take long”. It was written in 1983 by a Scot named Ivor Cutler, and it looks like he was right; the world is basically finished. Again, I like the intent, I like the feeling that I know is in there, but I can’t quite stifle my impression in this stupid modern world that this is just some white guy instructing women to save him from himself.
The band plays “One”, which I’ve caught at all but two U2 shows I’ve been to. And then, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”, the Song To Wrap Up Shows In A Tidy Anthemic Bow (i.e. “Walk On”, “Yahweh”, “Moment Of Surrender”), which is a pretty decent song, as is the very last song, “13”, which is a coda of sorts to the Innocence track “Song For Someone” and a very satisfying end I must say.
I walked out happy, all things considered, but pissed. I am so sick of Bono’s American patriotism I could just shit my brains out. Go pick on your own country! We’re done over here! The rest of the world is finally seeing us for what we are, and that’s a good thing! Let the myth of the American dream die, please. But not Bono; he drapes a giant American flag behind him and shouts “You! Are! Rock and Roll!” like some Pepsi commercial. I am sick to death of being told by Bono what America is. Stuff it dude. I live here.
No but seriously, other than those two songs and the accompanying twenty minutes or so of crushing defeat, I loved the show. And there was one more to go, in Nashville, because that was the only reachable weekend show on the whole tour. I was excited, and I still didn’t check any setlists. Surely there would be some surprises in store.
Well, there weren’t. Instead of “Red Flag Day”, they did “Gloria”, and let me tell you, while not a surprise, it was glorious. That was the only difference between the two Chicago shows as well, and let me tell you, Bono, Edge, Larry, Adam: You are ripping off your fans on this tour and that’s all there is to it. Even on the last tour, which was pre-engineered to be static, there were two whole different songs between the two nights. You know what I think? I think that back in 2014, U2 announced this whole two-part album odyssey, and rather than admit defeat, they’re carrying out this tour just because they need closure for themselves. They don’t give a shit what we want. They set this precedent over the past 17 years or so of mixing it up for us, and they’ve been gradually squeezing the spigot closed ever since.
WAH WAH WAH
Then again, it’s true that both Zoo TV and PopMart were pretty static, setlist-wise, and those were fantastic tours. Take e+i in a vacuum, and it’s a fantastic tour, too, aside from the relative poor quality of the new material. Bono’s voice sounded superb. If you could see the guys up close, these four dorks, laying it all out on the stage, well except for stone-faced Larry as always, you’d make no mistake that they’re into this and they’re giving their all.
There’s something that’s been nagging at me, though. Something that I recently read that Edge said in regard to the band’s criminally neglected Zooropa album: “The songs are not classics but they are more experimental and interesting than classic pop songs. This is something we don’t necessarily care to do anymore. We don’t go down the road with a piece of music just because it’s unusual. That’s not enough for us now.” That’s the hubris that comes from resurrecting yourself as the biggest rock band in the world over and over, overcoming at least two separate periods of critical derision that would kill other bands (if bands could be killed, which they can’t). Unfortunately, I think I’m in the minority of U2 fans that prize the spirit of experimentation that birthed Zooropa and Pop, and to an extent, No Line On The Horizon as well. I think most fans want more Big Crowd Singalong Hooks—even in the absence of Joshua Tree songs, at least things that remind them of Joshua Tree. I guess that’s what the band wants, too. Or just maybe, it’s all they’re capable of any more.
Memorial Day weekend in Nashville. Bachelorette parties on every corner, country cover bands in every joint. Somehow we find a bar & grill with immediate seating available and the food doesn’t completely suck. The general-admission entrance isn’t too crowded by the time we get there, and the floor doesn’t seem overcrowded when we get inside. The floor is a whole different ballgame than the nosebleeds, but it’s also not like it used to be. It used to be nothing but hardcore fans down here; nowadays it’s mostly people who wanna take a closeup video to show off on facebook. Whoops, maybe most of those hardcore fans would’ve been doing that the whole time; what do I know? Either way, I try to keep my eyes closed as much as possible.
The energy down here is still noticeably more intense, and being prepared for the late shitshow of new material, it isn’t nearly so crushing tonight. My wife offers a theory about “American Soul”, that it’s Bono telling this country to get up off its ass and do something. I still think it’s a horrible song, but I don’t let it get me down tonight. I know this is probably my last U2 show for a good four years or so. We’ve been spoiled lately. They’re sure to be back at the drawing board for a long time after such a long sequence of albums and tours. I’m soaking in every second of this show. Al Gore is here. Oprah is here. I am here, fully present in these moments.
Earlier in the day, news came over that Ireland had passed historic women’s rights legislation; usually on such occasions, Bono has something to say, but he’s curiously mum on this particular topic tonight. I’m standing here, ready to lend my voice to the roar of support, and when the opportunity passes, I’m a little perplexed. There’s been almost no legitimate political rhetoric all night, to the delight of one particular Nashville resident we meet, here at his first U2 show ever. He wished they’d played “Even Better Than The Real Thing” or some other old hits, but he’s still blown away by the spectacle and the performance.
It occurs to me then that, “American Soul” aside, maybe Bono has recognized something that a lot of us have realized as well: Nobody’s particularly interested in hearing what some middle-aged white guy has to say about this shit. What needs to be said, anyway? The guy’s made his stance pretty clear already. He’s been proselytizing for most of his life, mostly about unity; there’s not much more he can add, especially knowing we’ve all pretty much made up our minds anyway. I scoff at people who bitch about rock stars being political onstage, and yet in this moment, I really don’t think anything Bono could say will make a difference. Just sing the damn songs. Which he does, so well.
No “Bad”, no “All I Want Is You”. No variation on the mini-stage; only one single song difference. This tour is, on paper, their worst tour ever, and I walked out of the Bridgestone Arena feeling totally alive, my fandom reenergized. I bought into this shit yet again. All week, I’m listening to a ton of U2. It never gets old. I go to see live music seeking catharsis, spiritual uplift, and physical movement, and no matter what ideological issues my brain might drum up to try and sabotage them, U2 always delivers. I thought maybe this would be the last straw, but now all I want is another leg of this tour.
And “Party Girl”. Or “Two Hearts Beat As One”. Come on, you bastards.