- 03 May 18
On the opening night of the eXPERIENCE & iNNOCENCE 2018 tour, U2 sprang a number of surprises. Well, what did you expect from the biggest, and most ambitious, rock band in the world? Our man in Tulsa: Pat Carty
According to designer Willie Williams, and The Edge, and everyone else who was talking in Tulsa over the past few days, the eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour was initially supposed to follow promptly on the heels of iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE jaunt, or even be part of the same bill.
It’s no surprise, then, to see the familiar catwalk set-up running the length of the 20,000 seat BOK arena here in Tulsa, with the main stage at one end and the “b” stage at the other. There have been technical improvements: the hanging screen is now even bigger, but it will still be instantly familiar to anyone who put their money down last time around. The two albums are inextricably intertwined, of course, to the extent that there had also been talk on the run-in that there was nothing older than Achtung Baby in the setlist, at all. You didn’t know who to believe – and you didn’t know what you were going to get.
The first thing we got was the much-heralded AR experience of the opening song, ‘Love Is All We Have Left’. Point your mobile at the screen, and see a virtual Bono appear on your device. But hold on, there’s the real Bono, why aren’t I looking at him? Frankly, this technological marvel was a bit of a conundrum. It didn’t detract from the songs hymnal quality and you can sense that there is potential there for future marvels. But this was not the ultimate lightbulb moment.
The show really began with the second song, ‘The Blackout’. A characteristic of recent U2 albums is that all of the elements might not make complete sense at first, but once you see tracks preformed live, their charms coalesce. ’The Blackout' is a prime example. Here, it works. In contrast, ‘Lights Of Home’ stood out from the first listen – the band perform it on the main stage, Bono climbing up along an incline of lights, through the screen, to reach the other end, carried along by The Edge’s slide guitar. The screen dissolves to a night-time map of Dublin, just in case you’re still missing the message, the longing for home. It stands out here too.
HAPPY TO GO BLIND
‘Beautiful Day’, ‘All Because Of You’ and ‘I Will Follow’ are all part of the one sequence, and it’s Edge who drives it along. His guitar goes from cathedral-sized chiming, to down on the floor crunchy, and is particularly ferocious on ‘I Will Follow’ – earlier in the day, Bono joked that the guitarist had been sound checking it for about 12 hours and you can hear why. The guitar is huge. If that weren’t enough to get us salivating, we also get snatches of Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ and, of course, John Lennon’s ‘Mother’, which is followed by a segue from ‘The Ocean’ to ‘Iris’, complete with precious home movies of Bono’s mother, his "few beautiful, magical memories”. Bono reaches out to her on the screen but she slips away, out of his grasp, to the stars. It is a deeply moving glimpse into the heart of an artist, delving plaintively into the past.
Still with iNNONCE, the section which joins ‘Cedarwood Road’ and ‘Song For Someone’ features the same images of Bono’s childhood neighbourhood that featured in the last show. It remains uniquely powerful, and the lyric “a heart that is broken, is a heart that is open” speaks to Bono’s conviction that his mother’s tragic, early death made him that artist. It is a key to understanding the story being told by U2.
‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, featuring Larry on single snare, leads into a powerful ‘Raised By Wolves’. ‘Until The End Of the World’ again relies on familiar visual tricks a giant Bono spitting over the Edge – which delivered some of the most memorable shots from the earlier tour – with the screen finally dissolving into a Hokusai series of waves that wash away his Cedarwood Road memories. We then get a new anime movie that details how the band escaped the clutches of a bored youth with help of the devil and his tunes.
After the huge noise of ‘Elevation’, a U2 live classic at this stage, the band reappear on the b stage for a spectacular ‘Vertigo’, The Edge prowling the stage like a hungry animal. Bono is now wearing a top hat, sparkly lapels and face paint, a bit like Dylan in Renaldo & Clara. He’s looking strangely familiar during ‘Desire’, which rocks along with game-show graphics and a mirror ball, and all is revealed before ‘Acrobat’.
It’s the return of MacPhisto, brought to life with the use of a cheap iPad face mask, bringing back “deceit and vanity", all the better to confirm that truth is – as the band’s lyric video for ‘American Soul’ has already posited – indeed dead. The devil has returned because “when you don’t believe in me, I do my best work.”
If the band drops the ball at all, it might be with an acoustic reworking of ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’, featuring Larry on bongos. It doesn’t really take off here in Tulsa, and makes you long for the original. ‘Staring At The Sun’, using nifty under-floor graphics on the b stage, is dedicated to political stubbornness: when the KKK are shown on the screen, hounding the streets of Charlottesville with sinister menace, the line ‘Happy to go blind’ takes on a different, more chilling meaning.
There is a further surprise during ‘Pride’ – Adam and Edge appear at different sides of the theatre, so that the four members occupy the main points of a compass within the venue. They don’t so much break the fourth wall as crumple it up and throw it out the window. The political message of ‘Pride’, that the American dream is still alive despite the rise of the idiots, the shams and the hucksters currently occupying the presidential office in the US, might have been seen as a risky gambit in such a pro-Trump state, but the audience don’t seem to mind. It is a winner.
‘Get Out Of Your Own Way” and ‘American Soul', performed in front of a huge stars and stripes are stronger than on record, all rock ’n’ roll bustle and power. But ‘City Of Blinding Lights is something else again, a magnificently sparkly sky-scraping hymn played in front of a video featuring the Tulsa skyline. It is stunning.
The encore of Achtung Baby's ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’ – not their greatest song, but here it achieves a Crazy Horse-like simplicity and directness – a beautiful version of the incomparable ‘One’ (am I right in thinking that Edge got momentarily lost at the start of it?) and the huge chorus of ‘Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way’ are all perfectly judged. When the audience turn on their mobile lights for ‘One’, it is very affecting indeed, one of those moments when the church of U2 achieves a collective strength that is genuinely unparalleled.
Back to Willie Williams and The Edge: they both insisted during the week that the show is not some piece of musical theatre. It is much more than that, of course – but there are elements of musical theatre here, as if the band were playing around with the shape of the show that might eventually go on the road when they have foresworn on the travails which large scale touring imposes.
There is a traceable, compelling narrative running through the songs, emphasising the links not just between the eXPERIENCE and iNNOCENCE records but also back to the roots of the band, in the early neo-Punk days. The effect is that there is no room for anything from The Joshua Tree. This may also be a question of value – they have, after all, just done a huge tour in which every track from that historic album was played every night. But this is surely the first U2 show since 1987 which is entirely without the fruits of The Joshua Tree. It’s a brave move, and there were a few grumbles in the crowd, but it has paid off.
When the show finishes with ‘13 (There Is A Light)’ and Bono leaves the stage via a model of his childhood home, he has brought us full circle: “Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience.” It is a major statement about what it all means – or might mean. Not too many bands offer anything as grandiose. Fewer again have the ability to pull it off. There is a light. Don’t let it go out...