When a stadium-sized artist does a “club show,” they usually play an acoustic-ish set or a scaled-down (i.e. intimate but incomplete) version of their usual headlining concert. Sometimes, they do something special.
For their concert at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater on Monday night — presented by and broadcast on SiriusXM — U2 truly did something special, delivering a unique, carefully curated show, mixing classics and new songs with several deep cuts, including an encore set with the 13-piece Sun Ra Arkestra that featured three rarely played, Harlem-centric songs from their 1988 album “Rattle and Hum.” There were none of the dazzling special effects that have become a hallmark of their big-room shows; just lights, a stage, and one of the greatest live rock bands in history at full throttle, roaring through 20 songs from their nearly 40-year catalog.
The show promised to be a special one even before the band took the stage. The Apollo, which the band feted in the song “Angel of Harlem,” is probably one of the last remaining extant venues U2 longed to play but never had, and the seats had been removed from the venue’s main floor, creating three standing areas, including one right up against the stage. Also, SiriusXM’s concerts are largely reserved for contest winners, so the band knew they’d be playing for truly die-hard fans, along with Harry Belafonte, Jon Bon Jovi, Little Steven and John McEnroe, who were all seated in the balcony.
Unlike the setlist from the band’s ongoing “Experience + Innocence” tour, which aims to set a mood and ease the crowd into the evening, tonight U2 went straight for the jugular. As the group took the stage, fans barely had a chance to remark “Hey, The Edge is holding his ‘I Will Follow’ guitar” before the song’s unmistakable opening notes rang out and the band roared through not just one but three songs from “Boy,” its 1980 debut album: “I Will Follow,” “The Electric Co” and their first-ever single, 1978’s “Out of Control.” The Apollo’s floor, which has legendarily held audiences for Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo — and in previous SiriusXM concerts, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Guns N’ Roses — was bending at least three inches as the crowd jumped furiously through the songs. The band is nothing if not cognizant of its own power, and followed with “Red Flag Day,” from their latest album “Songs of Experience.” The drop in intensity was a relief; if they’d followed with another early favorite, people might have passed out.
The set continued with a mix of new material and classics like “Vertigo,” “Beautiful Day” and of course their 1984 Martin Luther King tribute “Pride (in the Name of Love).” Bono paid tribute to the venue several times throughout the set, at times a little awkwardly but never approaching the cultural tourism of the “Rattle and Hum” era, speaking of the “great African-American poets who built the Apollo,” of King’s “dream big enough to fit the whole world,” and of “dreamers” like James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Belafonte. “That is the America we celebrate.” He also, as always, dropped in lyrical snippets of seemingly random songs throughout the show: “Send in the Clowns,” Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” the Police’s “Walking on the Moon,” Lou Reed’s “Romeo Had Juliette” and even the Stooges’ “1969.”
After an hour, the band left the stage but quickly returned. “We couldn’t come all the way to the Apollo without bending the knee,” Bono said. “So we’d like to play the song we wrote the first time we came here in 1980-whatever.” The graffiti-like backdrop rose to reveal a 13-piece horn section from the Sun Ra Arkestra, and the now-giant band rocked through three songs from “Rattle and Hum” — “Angel of Harlem,” the Bo Diddley-channeling “Desire” and their duet with the late B.B. King, “When Love Comes to Town.” The set’s rollicking nature calmed down as Bono introduced the next song by saying, “It’s been a funny few years — but not funny. We’ve lost a lot of good people, and gained some useless people,” he said to cheers. He spoke briefly about the desperation that drives people to suicide and how many great artists have been lost in recent years, then dedicated the next song to two people: “a great storyteller, who I’m sure has stories he couldn’t tell us,” he said. “So for Anthony Bourdain, and his friends and family this is a song inspired by a great, great, great friend of ours. His name is Michael Hutchence,” the INXS singer who took his own life in 1997. The band followed with “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of.”
The band walked offstage again but after just a few moments, Bono and the The Edge returned to the stage, the latter sitting behind the piano, for an acoustic take on “Every Breaking Wave.” Bono messed up the chorus — prompting laughs from the audience, most of whom knew every word — and they started over. Then Clayton and Mullen returned to the stage, and the band capped off the night with “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” — a song from the new album that nonetheless functions as a perfect send-off, with a rousing anthemic chorus and the kind of positive, global sentiment that they’ve made their trademark over the past five decades.
U2 has performed in New York dozens of times over the years. Onstage at Madison Square Garden in 2005, Bono said it was the first city in America to truly embrace them, and reminisced about the band’s earliest shows in the city at the Ritz (now Webster Hall) and the long-shuttered Mudd Club in 1980. The band quickly scaled up to the Palladium and then Radio City Music Hall and then the Garden — where in 1987 they played a stunning version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for” accompanied by a gospel choir, captured on the “Rattle and Hum” album and film — and finally the area’s stadiums. They’ve also done stunty sets at odd locations, like The K-Mart in Astor Place to introduce their overly ironic 1997 “Pop” album, three songs in Grand Central Station in 2015, and even an acoustic set at the Museum of Natural History last year.
Yet even with that history, Monday night’s show at the Apollo was truly one for the ages.