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Anger is simple. . . . That's what rock is at the moment. It's an easy thing to do: painting in black. Joy is something else. -- Bono

Column: off the record ... vol. 18-770 (E+I Tour Special Edition)



What just happened? Seriously. In Tulsa, we had a 27-song set, a 2.5-hour performance, “Acrobat” and Larry Mullen wearing glasses. MACPHISTO! We had The Edge and Adam legally download themselves into the audience for “Pride.” The B-stage was more screen than stage. “Acrobat”?!? We had augmented reality entertain us with global warming imagery, and rapid cell phone battery depletion for 20 minutes. The screen separated like a teapot cozy. Bono wore a hat that we all nicknamed “Bonoham Lincoln.” “Acrobat”!

In all seriousness, what I saw in Tulsa was what any uber-geek U2 fan would want, but it also left me feeling like this show is still in raw form and has a great deal of work to be done to find its footing. As much as this isn’t classified as a “greatest hits” tour, the setlist in Tulsa included 17 songs that were released as singles from nine different albums. It’s a reminder that U2 has a robust back catalog. And from a band with 40 years of experience, I would have expected that on a tour dubbed “Experience + Innocence.” The show started with a track from Songs Of Experience and ended with a subtle homage to the beginning of Songs Of Innocence.

The narrative of the tour encompasses the “journey you can’t travel with a friend” aspect of being at the gates of heaven and, once again, giving an accounting of your life to St. Peter. The good, the bad, the ugly, and all the stuff in between. There are subtle (and not so subtle) callbacks to the 2015 Innocence + Experience tour. The same can be said of the social justice message that U2 have been sharing since their earliest days. There are subtle things like love-and-peace pajamas worn by children in the video that accompanies “One,” and the Trabant that the band members are in during an animated intermission film. There’s a nod to Edge falling with his guitar, perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek reminder of his oopsie in Vancouver in 2015.

However, what opening night lacked was interaction with the audience. I know what you’re thinking — what about that augmented-reality experience? As cool and gimmicky as that is, in my opinion, there wasn’t a great deal of interplay with the audience. The one song Bono wrote to the audience, “The Showman,” wasn’t even a part of the set! Sure, everyone sang the “woah oh-oh-oh’s” in “Pride” and took out their cameras to light up the arena during both “One” and “13 (There Is A Light),” but the audience seemed passive. Those in the upper and lower bowls were seated far more than they should be during a rock concert. A fan doesn’t need to be pulled up on stage, but there should be more banter. Perhaps it was nerves or Bono wanting to stick to the script of the storytelling narrative, or maybe it was the laid-back politeness of those in Tulsa attending a concert mid-week while under threat of a tornado. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I was expecting more interaction with the audience.

Opening nights are usually a tough show because the band is nervous and it’s generally the first time an audience has been in the arena. Sometimes U2 will do special pre-tour shows with invited guests from various charities or first-responder groups, but that didn’t happen this time around. I was told by a member of the tech crew that we were the first audience to do a show run-through. In a way, Tulsa concertgoers got to be beta-testers for the show. To be fair, that’s part of the reason I enjoy going to opening nights. The band will put on a good performance, and 30 days later it will improve and it’ll be great, then another 30 days later it’ll be mind-blowing.

Andy Greene’s comprehensive Rolling Stone review says a great deal of what I would say, which is reassuring to me. This is the first tour opener where I had to pause to gain a bit of perspective about the experience. After meeting with fans at the airport this morning and hearing their views, I found that there seems to be an even split between “the band could have been more clever” and “I get why they did what they did.” The debate is over the six-song suite of tunes that are repeats from 2015’s Innocence + Experience tour. While I appreciate Greene’s opinion about keeping that part of the tour intact, in my opinion it it was superfluous to include all six songs, and lazy to include the same production imagery and schtick. Although the tour did hit only 10 U.S. cities in 2015, it was broadcast on HBO, as well as released on DVD. The “wow” factor of Bono spitting at The Edge or holding him in his hand just was not there. The throwing of the books and raining of debris, which were all the same as in 2015 — including the actual debris itself — was very much “been there, done that, bought the $40 concert T-shirt.” U2’s better than that!

The set of songs done on the B-stage re-engaged the crowd because they were three solid fan-favorites: “Elevation” (with the return of the Influx mix … a nod to the opener of the Elevation tour), “Vertigo” and “Desire.” “Desire” feels deliberate because it is the way MacPhisto slithers his way back into the show. I was excited to finally meet MacPhisto because he wasn’t a U.S. character. The U.S. audience was only treated to the Mirrorball Man during ZooTV. Sure, he popped up in the animated video for “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me,” but he wasn’t there in the flesh. For the uninitiated, MacPhisto confused them. The use of a Facebook or Instagram filter to provide the quick change into the character brought MacPhisto into the 21st century. Bono cleverly uses MacPhisto to set the tone for the “heart of darkness” portion of the show, and “Acrobat” was phenomenal. However, it felt like a bit of whiplash to go from three rockin’ songs to that. Perhaps the whiplash was intentional because of the times we’re living in.

The performance of “Acrobat” was intense and adrenalized. I am hopeful it stays in the show, but they have to work on how to ease out of it because an acoustic “You’re The Best Thing About Me” doesn’t work as the next song after “Acrobat.” It sort of works as a lead-in to “Staring At The Sun,” however. Maybe they should try a full electric version of “You’re The Best Thing About Me”? The notion of Ali removing the MacPhisto tendencies from Bono does put a nice twist to the narrative, after all. However, I feel the intensity of “Acrobat” needs to be toned down slowly, and acoustic just doesn’t do it.

I thought “City Of Blinding Lights” was the song that took the place of “Where The Streets Have No Name” as far as production value goes. There were a lot of white-light moments where the audience was flooded with white, much like in “Streets,” and it has a similar theme of travel to a more heavenly destination.

The way “One” was used for this tour sucker-punched me in the gut. Instead of using “One” to promote the ONE Campaign or (RED) like in the past, this time a black-and-white film accompanied the song in which children wearing helmets went about their day with a look of worry and dread while the parents and grown-ups seemed oblivious to it all. As a parent of two elementary school-age children, including one with special needs, I thought I was watching my kids in the film. It spoke to me like few other things have, and left me in full-blown weep on the darkened floor in the arena. The struggle our children face today is unlike anything recent generations dealt with at such a tender age in our country. I will be seeing this with Li’l Miss in Boston, and I know we’ll need to talk about it afterward. I can only hope that others in the arena felt the same. I appreciated “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” following that, and it’s a perfect fit. Ending with “13 (There Is A Light)” was quite appropriate, and the arena could sing along. It felt like a nod to “40.” Instead of singing “How long” as hopeless faith to God, it’s more a song of hopeful faith. I wish more knew the words to it (even though it’s mostly the chorus for “Song For Someone”).

I really liked the show overall, and know I’ll love it when I see it in Boston as it becomes a more polished production. People will certainly have varying opinions about the show, and I know that mine may be a bit bold (especially about calling the six-song suite of I+E tour tunes lazy). One thing is for sure: It’s a work in progress and we’ve only seen a first draft. Aside from the gimmicks, this is a band that elevates a rock show like no other and will continue to push the envelope in ways few do. Just when you think “Pride” needs to be retired from the set, they find a way to reinvigorate it. As the lyric goes, “When you think you’re done … you’ve just begun.”

Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.

©@U2/Lawrence, 2018