Though U2 faced an overblown amount of backlash last September when they suddenly made their new album, Songs of Innocence, appear on most every Apple product in existence, that didn’t quell any enthusiasm for the band as a live act. Their “Innocence + Experience” trek is the first time the band has been on the road since their record-smashing “360” run wrapped in Canada in the summer of 2011. That’s nearly five years without the chance to see Bono and the boys on stage.
On Thursday night, they returned to Canada to launch the new tour, which is currently scheduled to run in arenas across North American and Europe through November. The full review of the show—which was, just as a teaser, pretty amazing—in next week’s issue of EW, but here are 21 other observations from the big kickoff at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
1. Though the doors of the Rogers Arena didn’t open until just after 6 p.m., large crowds were hanging around lining up (and buying U2 merchandise) starting around 1 o’clock.
2. It was definitely an older crowd, with a lot of vintage U2 tour t-shirts being sported. There were some younger kids there with parents, but I noticed very few teens or 20-somethings there on their own volition. It made sense, though, as tickets for the show—which sold out pretty much instantaneously—were pretty pricey (the face value of lower bowl seats hovered around $300).
3. The stage set-up was pretty remarkable. On one end of the floor sat the larger main stage (this was considered the “innocence” stage), and a long platform stretched all the way across the floor to a smaller circular stage on the other side (the “experience” stage). The general admission crowd filled in all around the two stages and the platform, so there wasn’t really a bad spot in the scrum—no matter where you were standing, you were pretty much guaranteed some face time with Bono.
4. The centerpiece of the production was a massive pair of screens that sat above the stages running parallel over the ramp. The screens had a catwalk inside them, which allowed for various band members to climb inside for a number of neat production tricks. Even when it was just sitting there not doing anything as people filled in the arena, it all still looked pretty impressive.
5. The pre-show music was all vintage punk and New Wave: Most of Talking Heads: 77, the Jam’s “Town Called Malice,” Gary Numan’s “Cars,” Simple Minds’ “Celebrate,” and, just before the band took the stage, the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat.”
6. Appropriately, the show opened with “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” Of all the songs from Songs of Innocence that showed up (and there were seven total in the set list), this was probably the weakest, if only because Bono seemed to really expect people to shout along during the “Whoa-ooh” parts, and nobody really did.
7. The first part of the show was supposed to be all about the band’s past, so each one of the songs were either very early entries in their catalog or newer songs that dealt with issues from the past. In doing this, the band really drove home something that got lost in the hand-wringing over the release of Songs of Innocence: That album is full of deep nostalgia and melancholy for a past they haven’t embraced since it was the present. Structuring the show that way is a neat trick to get people to reconsider the album they tried to delete a long time ago.
8. In addition to all the other aforementioned stage elements, there was also a giant light bulb hanging above Bono’s head for the first few songs. It was never entirely clear why it was there—perhaps to simulate the sparseness of his room, or maybe to provide an extremely literal representation of him getting the idea for the band—but he did swing it around a little bit before it was pulled into the rafters never to be seen again.
9. Apropos of nothing, I’d like to bring this up: “U2” remains a stellar name for a band. They really lucked out there. Think about all of the biggest rock bands left walking the Earth, and how few of them have names that aren’t completely stupid. I mean, I adore Metallica more than is healthy, but even I have to admit that “Metallica” remains a super dumb name for a band, and we only allow it because we’re used to it. A word to anybody naming a band out there: Choose something that sounds like a military weapon, like Led Zeppelin or Van Halen.
10. The first great visual moment of the show came about a quarter of the way through, when the band played a stripped-down version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” They all marched to the middle of the catwalk and played from inside the screens, and with the lights way up it created a cool effect. Larry Mullen, Jr. was particularly impressive, as he was able to go mobile by playing a simple marching band-style tom. It was spare but effective.
11. Mullen actually covered quite a bit of ground over the course of the night, which was a theme for him all week. His father, Larry Sr., passed away last Sunday, so Larry Jr. had to dash back to Ireland for the funeral. He had only arrived in Vancouver on Thursday morning, and the rest of the band had been rehearsing and sound checking with somebody else for the past two days. Bono did acknowledge Larry’s father’s death later in the show, just before they closed out the encore.
12. The night was sort of divided into two sets, with the first focusing on the band’s roots and the second drifting all over the place. In between, there was a short compilation of old clips of punk legends acting all punky. They included the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith delivering a monologue about being true to herself, and Lou Reed completely destroying an interview.
13. My relationship with U2’s music is sort of complicated, as I’m just OK with The Joshua Tree but am really into their weird ’90s run of Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop. (I even dig that album they made as Passengers.) So for me, the best stretch of the show was when they pulled three tunes from Achtung: “Until the End of the World,” “Mysterious Ways,” and “Even Better Than the Real Thing.” The latter was a particular thrill, as the live version of that song is always way more metal than it is on the album. It’s a louder, weirder take, and I sometimes wish the studio version had the same kind of bite.
14. At the end of “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” the screen moved up to reveal four disco balls, and for a split second I got really excited that they’d play “Discotheque.” Alas, they played “Mysterious Ways” instead, though that’s a great song that ultimately pleased more people than “Discotheque” ever has.
15. U2 have so many hits that you could put together a decent set list out of the smash songs they didn’t play on Thursday night, including “One,” “All I Want Is You,” “New Year’s Day,” “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me,” “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?,” “Elevation,” “Bad,” and “The Fly,” just to name a few. For the record, my favorite U2 songs is “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” which did get some play on the 360 tour.
16. Bono’s voice isn’t necessarily what it used to be, but he really nailed the spots that counted, especially on “Pride (In the Name of Love).” When he hits that “naaaaaaaame,” he sounds as fresh and powerful as he did when that song was new.
17. The audience in Vancouver was pretty much into everything, though there were some reactions that were bigger than others. Early on, people went nuts for “I Will Follow,” and “Desire” also got a surprisingly huge pop. Also, a ton of couples were slow dancing to “With or Without You.” But the crown probably went to “Where the Streets Have No Name.” People went absolutely ape for that song, and the reaction it got when it was over was so huge that Bono seemed genuinely taken aback by the intensity of the crowd’s adoration.
18. Bono dropped a ton of little nods to other songs into his own. He crooned a verse of Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” before going into “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and a little bit of “The Hands That Built America” snuck into the end of “Bullet the Blue Sky.” He played the harmonica for “Desire,” so at the end he also sang the chorus of the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” and followed with that song’s harmonica riff. My favorite was when he slipped in a chorus of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” while doing “Mysterious Ways.” Not all of these tricks are new, but they added fresh new twists to songs that can sound overly familiar simply because of decades of ubiquity.
19. Two people from the audience ended up on stage. The first was a young woman who Bono drafted into camera duty during “Sweetest Thing.” He gave her an iPhone to film the band while they ran through the song on the smaller “experience” stage, and the feed was sent to the giant screens in the arena. She was actually pretty good, and gave Larry Mullen, Jr. a nice well-deserved close-up.
20. The other audience member on stage was a teenage boy who Bono pulled on for “Beautiful Day.” He made the kid stand by a light-up pillar on the catwalk between stages, and though he eventually talked to him during the song’s breakdown, it didn’t really add up to much. The kid was game, though: At one point he looked at the crowd and shrugged, as if to say, “Yeah, I don’t know where this is going either.” A few seconds later, he threw his hands up and started dancing like a madman, which made the crowd go pretty bonkers.
21. U2 finished the opening night of the Innocence + Experience tour with “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” an old standby that still sounds downright heroic in its epicness. When it came time for the show to end, the members of U2 walked off the stage one by one — well, The Edge tumbled off the stage — leaving only Bono to sing the refrain a cappella. The crowd took over for him, and he was able to call it a night.
U2 Set List – May 14, 2015
“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”
“Out of Control”
“I Will Follow”
“Iris (Hold Me Close)”
“Song For Someone”
“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
“Raised By Wolves”
“Until the End of the World”
“Even Better Than the Real Thing”
“Every Breaking Wave”
“Bullet the Blue Sky”
“Pride (In the Name of Love)”
“With or Without You”
“City of Blinding Lights”
“Where the Streets Have No Name”
“Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”