U2’s May 15 opener of its two-night stay at Los Angeles’ Fabulous Forum (the second is tonight) marked just a little under a year since the band sold out two dates at the Rose Bowl on their victory lap “Joshua Tree” tour, which ended up grossing $316 million for just 51 shows. Presumably, those who craved hearing the likes of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You,” “Bullet the Blue Sky” or “Where the Streets Have No Name” got their fill last time, because none of those concert staples is on the current set-list for the band’s new Experience + Innocence tour. This latest trek builds upon the previous 10-city North American outing in which the album titles were reversed.
Like that series of shows, the new indoor-arena concerts once more boast a giant, two-sided LED screen that bifurcates the venue three-quarters of the way from front to back, allowing the band to interact with the images. Featuring a catwalk that leads to a secondary stage, if rock ‘n’ roll is indeed in senescence, U2’s current tour ups the ante for both the future arena concert (with its sphere-like wraparound video and cell-phone-generated augmented reality stunts) and the do-not-resuscitate concept album. All of which follows a timeline that incorporates the group’s history – from the war-torn streets of Dublin to the “last band that matters” elder statesmen. The tour may have begun just two weeks ago, May 3, in Tulsa, but the group is already a well-oiled machine.
Refusing to lean on nostalgia or the hits, the Experience + Innocence tour relies heavily on U2’s last two albums, with nearly half (12) of the 26-song, two-and-a-half-hour show devoted to them (nine from “Experience,” three from “Innocence”). Throw in such deep, rarely-played-live cuts as “October” entries “Gloria” and “The Ocean,” “Pop” track “Staring at the Sun” and the most pointedly political song of the night, “Achtung Baby” Trump-le-oeil skewering “Acrobat” (in which Bono dons a top-hat and goes white face a la Rolling Thunder Dylan or Cabaret MC Joel Grey to evince his “Sympathy for the Devil” Mr. MacPhisto character from the notorious Zoo TV tour) and you have the recipe for consumer unrest.
Nonetheless, when it comes to performing live, U2 remains the gold (and platinum) standard, the one band you’d show to future intelligent races to explain just how much emotional succor white, middle-class boomers and Gen Xers receive from four Irish expats — men who wrap themselves in red, white and blue, as U2 did for “American Soul,” their love letter to the country and the music they revere.
Like the giant LED, the set is divvied into two halves, opening with Bono solo behind the screen, his face projected and split into various abstractions, crooning, “Love is All We Have Left,” bookended near the end by “Love is Bigger Than Anything,” echoing the band’s oft-described Christian roots.
The set list veers song to song from despair (“Blackout”) to hope (“Lights of Home”), youthful exuberance (“I Will Follow”) to desperation (“Red Flag Day”), culminating in a four-song interlude from the previous “Innocence” tour that ends the first half, capturing Bono and the band’s early days surrounded by violence (“Cedarwood Road,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Raised by Wolves”) and punctuated by the death of his mother (and subsequent refusal by his father to acknowledge the loss) while still a teenager (“Iris [Hold Me Close]”).
“Boy searches for manhood and loses his innocence,” Bono explains, unveiling the show’s mythic themes of loss and discovery. “Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far range of experience,” reads a message on the sprawling screen.
The final half of Experience + Innocence features an interpolation of David Bowie’s “Jean Genie” in the middle of “Vertigo,” a Bono harp solo at the close of “Desire” and The Edge’s going acoustic on the deep “Pop” track, “Staring at the Sun,” which Bono describes as from the band’s “psychedelic period in the ‘90s.”
“Acrobat” and “Staring at the Sun” are both accompanied by horrific images of torchlight-bearing Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville, while a lunar landscape is utilized as a backdrop for a yearning “You’re the Best Thing About Me.” The band goes into fabled North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith’s four-corner offense for its surging Martin Luther King tribute, “Pride (In the Name of Love),” an individual band member occupying each point in a square that stretches across the entire floor. “We dream with our eyes open, our hearts open, our hands open, our minds open,” preaches Reverend Bono, indicating we can’t experience the American dream if we’re not awake, a clear nod to a welcoming immigration stance. Kendrick Lamar’s fiery rap opens the kinetic “American Soul,” with The Edge, as he’s done all night, carving out rich, thick melodies using Picasso-like riff sketches.
Say what you will about Bono’s ego-stroking flair, but when he’s in revivalist mode, there’s no rock frontman more inspiring. “We need each other,” he insists. “There is no them, only us,” as an intro to their hopeful benediction “One,” accompanied by a pair of #metoo-inspired hashtag movements in #womenoftheworldtakeover (“because if you don’t, the world will come to an end”) and #povertyissexist.
Bono asks at one point, “What’s the future like, Edge?” “It’s better,” his lifelong sidekick offers, as the concert closes with “13 (There is a Light),” a message to his own kids and future generations. “If there is a dark/Now we shouldn’t doubt / And there is a light / Don’t let it go out.”
With that, Mr. Hewson plucks a giant light bulb from an onstage replica of his childhood home, echoing the very same image that began the “Innocence” tour and closes this one, leaving us with a feeling of both empowerment and infinite possibility. Maybe U2 – and its fans – have finally found what we’ve been looking for all along.