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"If you look at music as emotion, then I think you'll connect us to the ballad tradition, to the wailing and keening of the old music."

-- Bono

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Alchemy at the Apollo: Reflecting on U2’s Historic Night

@U2, June 12, 2018
By: Tassoula E. Kokkoris

 

There are sacred spaces throughout the world—from houses of worship to wonders of nature. Places that change your chemistry as you enter them because of the palpable energy that permeates throughout.

Nestled in the heart of Harlem, The Apollo Theater is a sacred space.

Last night, U2 weaved their magic into a long-standing tapestry of historic performances, both honoring the heroes who came before them and confirming their place among the greats.

Opening its doors in 1914 as Hurtig & Seamon's New Burlesque Theater, the space officially became the Apollo in 1934. Under its new ownership, the focus shifted from burlesque to variety shows and welcomed African-American performers and patrons for the first time. What resulted was a renaissance of jazz, blues, dance and comedy.

Ella Fitzgerald won an “Amateur Night” competition there as a teenager, which kick-started her career. The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Richard Pryor, The Jackson 5 and countless others also began their legendary journeys in the space. James Brown was so important to the Apollo that after he passed away, his body was brought to the theater to receive mourners ahead of his funeral. 

When the smiling members of U2 wandered onto the stage last night without any announcement or warning, it was as if those of us in the audience time-traveled back to 1980 when the band first arrived in New York, “on a cold and wet December day.”

The four young boys made their American debut at The Ritz rock club just two days before John Lennon’s assassination. Three of the songs they played at that first U.S. concert opened the Apollo show last night. Their ages may have shifted, but their energy certainly hasn’t.

Capping off the high-charged trio of “I Will Follow,” “The Electric Co.” and “Out Of Control” was “Red Flag Day,” a rocker from Songs Of Experience, which sounds more at home after those classic tracks than it does on its own album.

From there, for seven more songs, they continued at a pace bands half their age would arguably find challenging to sustain, only slowing slightly for “Beautiful Day.”

Furthermore, the usual Bono commentary was quite minimal this evening. Despite several celebrities in attendance, including Jared Leto, Jon Bon Jovi and Little Steven, Bono only called out to Harry Belafonte, who was in the balcony.

At the end of the main set Bono briefly let the audience physically support him as he hoisted his megaphone up during “American Soul.” I, for one, breathed a sigh of relief when he landed safely back on the stage.

The band saved the tear-inducing moments for the first encore.

When they re-emerged, Bono said, “Let’s try a song that we played the first time we came here in 80-whatever-it-was …” and the curtain raised to reveal the shimmering instruments and smiling faces of the Sun Ra Arkestra along with the Sex Mob orchestra, whose horns brought “Angel Of Harlem” an incomparable electricity. The only time the band previously played at the Apollo, in 1988, was to film portions of the video for this song.

Next, a rousing “Desire” led into a heavy-on-funk, stripped down arrangement of “When Love Comes To Town” and concluded with a raw “Stuck In A Moment,” which Bono dedicated to Anthony Bourdain and his family after an acknowledgement of the recent celebrity losses and a mention of INXS’s Michael Hutchence, for whom the song was originally written.

The second encore included Bono and Edge on “Every Breaking Wave” (it only took two takes—whoopsie) and the full band for “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and the finale of “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way.”

Though the set list was heavy on mainstream hits, nothing about the Apollo show felt basic. U2 is accustomed to playing to tens of thousands of people per night, but here they had just over 1,500, and seemed almost more at home in this setting.

Those in attendance—a mix of contest winners who were subscribers of either Sirius XM or U2.com, or were drawn from Twitter—enjoyed an alchemy that doesn’t happen at every rock concert. It was an exchange of energy between the band, who were exuberant, and their followers, who were euphoric, and the building itself, which holds the secrets, successes and souls of those who have blessed its stage in decades past. 

A sacred show in a sacred space.

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