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I'm personally embarrassed that we're 'the band of the '80s.' It's not such a great compliment. -- Bono

Column: off the record ... vol. 18-775


 OTR off the record 1200

It’s been a few weeks since the Experience + Innocence Tour concluded in Berlin, Germany. The past seven months are still a blur, but what became exceedingly clear to me is the 2018 tour was the most personal one U2 has ever produced. Songs Of Experience is Bono’s most personal album, so it’s no surprise the tour’s creative team took us on a journey of enlightenment.

I had the privilege of seeing the tour several times: Tulsa, Uniondale, Boston, Uncasville and Dublin. Through the generosity of many, I was also able to listen to almost the entire tour thanks to Mixlr. After the tour, I feel strongly that U2 did not hit its stride until the second leg in Europe starting in October with the inclusion of the Achtung Baby suite during Act One. This is a tour about experience and it was the early ‘90s when the band started using the lessons learned in the ‘80s to their advantage. Bono was dabbling with personas to make statements without being (for lack of a better term) crucified for wearing his heart on his sleeve. The Edge’s signature beanie made its first appearance and has been a staple in his wardrobe ever since. Adam realized that his partying ways needed to change. Larry, well, remained Larry.

The band turned 30 during the run-up to Achtung Baby, and half of them were fathers at that point. The 1980s were a decade of innocence of sorts, which is why the focus on ‘80s material during 2015’s Innocence + Experience Tour made sense. Of course, after 2017’s Joshua Tree Tour, the band didn’t have to include any of those tunes in the 2018 production, freeing them to build a more unique set list. The final third of the tour included Achtung Baby and Zooropa tracks, with the last three shows offering the most complete storytelling thanks to the inclusion of “Dirty Day.”

The 2015 tour was about Iris Hewson and Bono’s innocence lost after her passing. The final days of the 2018 tour became about Bob Hewson and Bono’s reflection on his relationship with his father, which also became a reflection of Bono as a father and his relationships with his four children. With that suite of five songs during Act One, we saw Bono recognize how he was pulling away from his father (“Dirty Day”), how he was pulling away from U2 (“Zoo Station,” “The Fly” and “Stay”), and how his children are now pulling away from him (“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”). That theme of pulling away, either physically or personally, became the focus of the Experience + Innocence show’s first act. The second act was more about reconciliation and rebuilding relationships. The final act was about hope: Take it from a man who’s experienced a great deal in his nearly six decades on the planet — everything’s gonna be all right.

The brilliance of including the Achtung Baby / ZooTV elements in the Experience + Innocence Tour acknowledged that part of the band’s story. Both the 2015 and 2018 tours were designed to be a walk down memory lane, and not mentioning the near breakup of U2 in the 1990s would have been a great disservice to the storytelling. The first leg of the Experience + Innocence Tour had a little nod to the Pop era when Bono introduced “Staring At The Sun,” but that was all. It seems like they really want to forget Pop. Once in Europe, he recalled vacationing in the south of France with his family and the band during the mid-to-late ‘90s as he introduced “Summer of Love,” without mentioning anything about Pop.

More than that, the Achtung Baby and Zooropa tunes linked 1992/1993 and 2018 in ways akin to 1987 and 2017, with world events repeating themselves, and the material was ripe for revisiting. The ZooTV Tour was a statement about media manipulation and culture. The ZooTV Outside Broadcast legs started with the European Union flag rising from the ground as “Ode To Joy” played. As the stars fell from the flag one-by-one, Bono, in full Fly regalia, kicked at the screen. There was even a warning against Nazism during “Bullet The Blue Sky,” as the burning crosses turned into burning swastikas with Bono saying, “Don’t let it happen again.” Fast-forward 25 years later and we saw those themes revisited: "Ode To Joy" began "City Of Blinding Lights" as the European Union flag was being constructed on the screen. "New Year's Day" was sung in front of the European Union flag. Swastikas were featured in the opening video montage highlighting the damage to Europe during World War II as Charlie Chaplin's final speech from "The Great Dictator" played. They reappeared in the video intro to "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" as Bono said "This is not who we are." Elements from ZooTV also made a reappearance as “The Fly” got a modern makeover, but the visuals still honored its original ZooTV production.

I was frustrated it took so long for U2 to finally offer a show that felt complete. They were constantly revising the graphics, which brought a freshness each night and a sense they could produce something better. Both the band and the creative team would not settle for anything less, and it showed. It felt like this tour mattered more than anything they’ve done live before. What U2 gave us on the stage was who they are after 40-plus years in the business. They gave their "committed" and casual fans the show they wanted to offer while at the top of their game. Bono admitted this is the best he’s ever sung in a recent Irish Independent interview  and acknowledged that this is the best The Edge, Adam and Larry have ever played. I concur with those sentiments after seeing the band in Dublin earlier this month. Those were the best shows I’ve seen since my first concert in 1992 in Hartford, Connecticut. My frustration is that this is what the tour should have been in North America, instead of a rehashing of 2015.

Furthermore, I feel the Experience + Innocence Tour was the most spiritually open tour the band has produced. The content and themes were designed to open hearts and minds to the humanity we all share. While this isn’t new from past tours, Bono’s calling on the Holy Spirit at several points in the show (“I Will Follow,” “Even Better Than The Real Thing”), as well as the MacPhisto interlude, were more overt. It wasn’t hidden in lighting production or what we saw on the screen; instead, Bono called out from the stage more often about his spiritual walk. “Lights Of Home” ranks right up there as the physical representation of the journey between heaven and Earth. During the tour’s closer in Berlin, Bono shared an anecdote about a conversation he had with Mark Fisher before his passing that the band “kinda makes songs of worship.” (For the full anecdote, start at 1:28:00 mark.) In the early ‘80s that was a forbidden statement because of fear they wouldn’t be accepted as a rock ’n’ roll act.

This tour will stay with me for a very long time. For those who were open to it, the tour challenged you to go on a hero’s journey, reconcile the past with the present, and use the wisdom gained to find innocence again. From my own journey, the growth I experienced between Tulsa and Dublin was substantial. I needed to do a great deal of reconciling, and after my own life-altering experience in 2016, I sensed an immediacy I hadn’t felt before. The production asked hard questions of the audience, and for those who were up to answering, it made you do some serious soul searching. For me, it wasn’t a tour of mere entertainment.

That challenge brings me to an interesting crossroads for 2019. I’ve written about my son and his struggles with mild high-functioning autism spectrum disorder in some of my @U2 articles, and over the next year I am going to take some time away from atu2.com to write a book about our family’s journey through those experiences. Many people have told me I should write a book, and I’m taking them up on that suggestion. This sabbatical is a new adventure for me, and I will miss being a steady part of the atu2 crew, but I’ll still be around behind the scenes and planning events. (There’s a very special one we’re working on for late summer/early fall 2019, so stay tuned!)

I am grateful for all the support from our readers and everyone who follows us across our social media accounts. It is an honor and a privilege to share with you my quirky perspective on this band we all hold so dear. It has been a joy to meet many of you on the road at shows and events over the past 20 years. That connection we all share is why I love doing what I do, and I am incredibly thankful to everyone who has shared with me your stories and passion about this band. The U2 fan community is a great family to be a part of, so thank you for letting me be a part of your fan experience.

I’m off to write a book, so until next time …

©@U2/Lawrence, 2018

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