It is, the Edge says, “a soft day” when we reach the U2 guitarist by phone in Chicago. “That’s code for pretty gray, misty, not particularly warm. The kind of weather you’d think of the west of Ireland in the spring or fall.”
In other words, the band feels right at home, which, often as not in the last few years has been the road. The foursome is making its way across the country this summer on its Experience + Innocence tour, the sequel to its 2015 Innocence + Experience trek. The mirror image tours support the group’s companion albums, 2014’s Songs of Innocence — the one that may still be in your iTunes thanks to that free download—and 2017’s Songs of Experience. The jaunts bookend the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame quartet’s mammoth 2017 Joshua Tree stadium tour, in which the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. and frontman Bono played its landmark 1987 album front to back.
That exhaustive live re-examination is why U2 decided to skip that album’s songs as they headed back indoors to the relative intimacy of arenas for Experience + Innocence. Instead, the show spotlights the linked albums and plenty of the other hits from their massive catalog.
At the recent Los Angeles stop at the Forum, the band was typically top notch. The foursome managed, as it always does, to go widescreen with its ambitions—quite literally, resurrecting the mammoth central video screen from the 2015 tour—while also scaling back on a small satellite “E” stage for a set that can make the largest spaces feel like the closest quarters.
Among the many memorable moments was an impassioned take of the never-before-played live “Acrobat” from Achtung Baby, the return of Bono’s devilish alter ego McPhisto from the same period, refreshed readings of vintage hits like “Desire” and rollicking versions of newer tracks like “Raised by Wolves.” There was also a frank, and at times discomfiting, video interlude that included a montage of images both jarring and uplifting — moving from white supremacists confronting peaceful protesters to images of the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King. That portion of the show, set in part to “Staring at the Sun” and “Pride (In the Name of Love),” has drawn the evergreen complaint from some fans that the band can be “too political” but the Edge, gently, isn’t having it. “There’s always going to be people who just want a nice night out of entertainment,” he says. “The times do demand a response from artists. You can’t just pretend everything’s hunky dory and go forward, because there are issues that need to be faced.”
We chatted with both the perpetually knit-capped guitarist (real name: Dave Evans) and the equally genial and thoughtful Clayton about transitioning from the Joshua Tree trek and its attendant greatest hits to a set list weighted towards newer material, their state of the art production, and playing a show suffused with political and personal musings at this fraught juncture in U.S. history.
Below are some edited and condensed excerpts from our chat.
On the response to the Joshua Tree tour
Clayton: I don’t think we had any idea how much of a runaway success that was going to be and what a humbling experience it was to play that suite of songs in that way. But it was truly mesmerizing and spiritual in its feeling. We had an amazing turnout. They were good fun shows.
On subsequently choosing to omit those songs from this tour
Clayton: Almost by definition, once we had played those dates, there was just no way we were really going to be able to go back to that territory on this tour. It’s not any disrespect or minimizing of that material but we just feel that our audience got as much of that period as is humanly possible with those stadium shows. We wanted to give them something that they weren’t so familiar with or that wasn’t such an easy ride for everyone concerned. We wanted to be challenged as much as we wanted to challenge these spaces.
The Edge: We adopted the idea early on, and we were willing to abandon the idea if it didn’t really work. We really wanted to do something fresh. As we started to put the show together, we could see, “This is going to fit together really well.” Obviously, to some people it’s a disappointment, but we just did the Joshua Tree tour.
Clayton: Look, we are aware that it’s somewhat perverse, we do accept that. [Laughs] As with everything, there’s a certain amount of pain. I think ending [the main set] on “City Of Blinding Lights,” lyrically it has an interesting through line which relates to innocence, in a way. I mean, there is a reading of that that is almost like a contemporary “My Way,” in terms of saying goodbye to certain parts of yourself, that just connects [to the overall innocence and experience theme] in a way. And it’s a lovely, contemporary, modern piece of music. We think that will take on some of the emotional weight of “[Where The] Streets [Have No Name].”
On the advances in technology that allow the 2018 model of their central video screen — into which the band members climb and interact — look even sharper
The Edge: It really changed the perception of the images and it’s a much finer detail screen, and also it’s lighter, so you can see better through it. It definitely gave us a sense of its potential. It’s a show that’s been very challenging to put together but we’re really happy with where we are with it now. The way it’s set up gives us a chance to really get very close to the audience.
Clayton: The screen is much more versatile, we were able to add some moving elements inside it, which are truly terrifying when you’re in it. Sometimes you feel like you’re on the set of Alien or something. [Laughs] Maybe that’s a nice flashback. We added the innovation on the E-stage of making that into a screen, so the architecture is very sci-fi, it’s very much set in the future and this is a forward looking show.
On whether images projected onto the circular floor of the smaller satellite stage — or E stage — are ever distracting
The Edge: It’s funny, occasionally. We have the moon and the sun and they’re slowly turning. It can affect your balance. Your sense of what’s under your feet, it really does impact how you feel. Sometimes I have to look up. If I look down, I start to get disoriented.
On having always had a political element to their music and performances but how the current climate might be shaping the audience reaction to certain songs and images in the show
The Edge; We purposely didn’t want to get into sort of party politics or finger wagging on a personal level, because that’s not helpful. We really want to concentrate on issues and try and find common ground. We opened in Tulsa and then we went to St. Louis. We have [the] “Staring at the Sun” and “Pride” [interlude] — these are very conservative parts of the country — and people were with us. People cheered. There was no equivocation. They were behind us the whole time. That was very encouraging to us.
Clayton: In terms of the editorial decision, we wanted to figure out what our social responsibility was in that sense. In that, it’s very easy to take shots at the administration, of where things are right at the moment, but everybody’s doing that and one has to also acknowledge that our audience is made up of both types of people and we’ve always appealed to the better nature of everyone. So, we said, there are times [when] to not say something is to say something. So, particularly, Charlottesville as an incident, particularly the various kinds of gun crimes, whether they’d be from the police or from school shootings, these things seem like you’ve got to make a statement.
On remaining hopeful in what can feel like hopeless times and why it’s important to infuse their shows with that optimism
The Edge: I think hope is not just possible, I think it’s crucial. It is something that we believe in as a band. This actually, I have to say, was an early hallmark. We were part of the post punk movement. At the time, a lot of political music was being written, a lot of protest music, but what we instinctively realized is that just complaining, just writing about how bleak things are, is not only unhelpful, but it also makes for kind of a dull show. We think that defiance is the essence of rock and roll, and defiance demands that you do find the positive, and you find the way to push back, without compromising your values.
Clayton: We’ve always felt that there was no emotional or intellectual benefit from showing people how awful things are and letting them leave the building and drive home. We’ve always felt that, yes, one can be realistic, you can get into those emotions, you can tell that story but you have to celebrate the basis of the human condition, which is that we do have hope, we do find the positive and we do seek to make changes.
U2’s Experience + Innocence tour continue in the U.S. through July before moving to Europe in the late summer and fall.