For many years now, U2 have not so much played gigs as put on shows. Nearing the end of their eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE arena tour of North America and Europe, their two consecutive nights at the O2 Arena in London show the band taking theatricality to a new level. With artist and stage designer Es Devlin as creative consultant in this stunning spectacle, it may seem a bit OTT but it’s undeniably a memorable experience.
For their now customary in-the-round performance, U2 play in different parts of the arena, with a multi-level main stage connected by a long walkway to a smaller circular stage, plus podiums near the sides. Above all is a 100-foot-long, double-sided LCD video screen (or “barricage”) flashing a kaleidoscope of giant images, from within which the band themselves emerge at the start in an impressive coup de théâtre – it’s some entrance.
Yes, the visual effects are dazzling, and the sound quality is superb, but U2 do know how to command the cavernous space of the O2 Arena and reach out to the 17,500 crowd: they’ve been playing this size of venue, and bigger, for three decades. Together for over 40 years, and now pushing 60, the old stagers prove they can still cut the mustard. Of course it’s not the same raw excitement of their youth, but they don’t just go through the motions in a two-and-a-quarter-hour show that may be bombastic but is certainly entertaining.
As always, the quartet are dressed in black: drummer Larry Mullen Jr now wearing glasses, bassist Adam Clayton with silver-grey hair, beanie-wearing guitarist The Edge playing as dynamically as ever and the increasingly stocky front man Bono, noticeably less mobile on stage these days but still singing with passion – and still preaching his gospel for world peace.
They perform an interestingly varied 22-song set, which promotes their 2017 album Songs Of Experience with seven tracks. Achtung Baby also features strongly with six tracks, in a set that spans their entire career and includes many of their best-known songs without being a greatest hits show. This tour is the follow-up to 2015’s Songs Of Innocence tour (but deferred from last year as the band were doing a 30th anniversary tour of The Joshua Tree).
Both have an autobiographical theme, but while Songs Of Innocence focused on their adolescent experiences in Dublin, this show relates the “adventure” of the band – and it has more of a political edge. As Bono rather pompously says, “Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience”. Though he claims “the real heroes are firefighters, teachers, nurses”, there’s a certain amount of self-mythologising, not to mention sermonising, going on in this story.
Ugly images of conflict plus Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un, et al. are counterpointed by Charlie Chaplin’s plea for humanity from The Great Dictator, before the band kick off with a storming account of the ominous The Blackout, followed by the string-backed hope of Lights Of Home, both from Songs Of Experience. Then it’s right back to the start of U2’s career, with the post-punk energy of I Will Follow and the spiritual cadences of October.
Reminiscing, Bono says of London: “This is where it all started for us. We played to 34 people at the Hope & Anchor in 1980. I just want to say, this is better.” But he also reveals that U2 almost split in the early days of recording Achtung Baby at Berlin’s Hansa studio in 1990, just after the Wall had come down: “The Cold War was supposed to be over but it was still going on in the band.”
An exhilarating performance of Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses is accompanied by crashing waves on the screen which seem to drown the band. Bono yells “We’re the greatest rock’n’roll band on the north side of Dublin!” before they belt out Even Better Than The Real Thing. He then revisits his devilish, top-hatted MacPhisto persona, with digitally projected imagery including horns superimposed on his face, as he boasts about wreaking havoc in “this disunited kingdom”, before going into Acrobat (which this tour plays live for the first time).
For two of the new songs, The Edge plays acoustic guitar and Mullen hand drums in the lyrical You’re The Best Thing About Me, while the tender Summer Of Love is performed by Bono and The Edge only. Big hitters Pride (In The Name Of Love) and New Year’s Day are played at full throttle. Standing in front of a large European Union flag, Bono says, “No one wants you to leave… Without you, we are less.”
The first encore, One, is a celebration of unity, as hundreds of smartphone torches illuminate the darkness, while at the end of closing song 13 (There Is A Light) Bono swings a supersized light bulb above the crowd. It’s not subtle, but U2’s message – and their music – is as pulsatingly loud and as crystal clear as it ever was.