U2 – “Experience And Innocence Tour” – Manchester Arena (19-20 October), London o2 Arena (23-24 October), Dublin ThreeArena (5-6 November), Berlin (13 November) 2018
It feels like the beginning of an end. But I’m not ready. Not yet.
The past four years will be seen as a golden age of this band to fans : two studio albums, three tours, 217 live shows, 91 different songs played live, four American tours, three European ones, and a rare visit to South America, and – if I am honest – some of the best, and most intimate shows I have ever seen them do. As they draw the Innocence/Experience Tour to a close, the band seem to have reached an artistic peak. In fact, these might be the best shows I have seen them play in my life.
This time around the band seem more focused, more effective, working with a stronger vision than they have on some previous tours, as if, somehow, they know that this tour the stakes are high. Bono has had a couple of near-fatal accidents and stared his own life in the face – and I guess, when faced with mortality staring you in the face, if you have to play music, you have to make it matter. None of us are getting out of this alive. “No such thing as spare time, no such thing as free time, no such thing as down time, all you got is Life Time.”- Henry Rollins
If is the middle word in life, and if this is the end for U2 – not impossible given their age, health, and the fact that playing live is physically punishing in terms of both the miles, and the mileage, then this is perhaps the best way to bow out. I get to see seven shows in three weeks – in Manchester, London, Dublin, and the final closing show in Berlin. In Dublin, it ends as it started three years ago ; Bono walking through the crowd, singing “The Miracle of Joey Ramone”. It comes full circle. It opens, as the show has done for a few months, with a rousing speech from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”, reimagined as a modern day, contemporary statement of intent, a call to rise up, to change, to challenge the world as it is, to make it a better world. In Berlin, the redesigned visuals work to a final, perfect effectiveness. Even now, at the final show, the show is being refined, redesigned : with a tour debut just three shows from the end and new elements added just for the final show.
The opening quarter revisits mortality : since the opening is populated with MRI footage consistent with a transient ischaemic attack (or a mini stroke), it frames the show about facing the end. “The BlackOut”, on the face of it, about the end of the world, can also be seen as a personal tale. Is this an extinction event we see? It’s both a violent call to arms, a rabble rouser, a defiant moment, and a statement of intent that these stakes might never have been higher.
For me, at least, U2 have a way about them that creates a great lyrics that could mean anything to anyone, but to me, these words are universal, they create meaning, and they work on multiple levels. : personally, few song lyrics some up my journey through life and time, as it’s clear / who you are will appear . This song – the band playing in a moving stage above the arena – calls back to a burst of unconsciousness and both individual and overall mortality. It’s followed by “Lights Of Home” : another song where the band address age, death, and the fact that we all die alone in the end. Another road you can’t take with a friend.
In its way, this tour is what I needed : spiritually, the five years that ran from early 2012 to early 2017 were very, very difficult, as I faced near certain destruction. It took every inch of me to survive that, when it would have been easier to surrender to the brutal elements. It’s clear – who I was did appear : and I was a survivor. Being a victim means things happen to you – and plenty did happen to me – but also, I fought back. I may not have won every battle, but I survived the war. It’s followed with the “Lights Of Home”, which is the most blatant and obvious song about death U2 have ever tackled. As you age, your body tells you things and you would be wise to listen. At the far end of the stage, Bono joyously sings free yourself to be yourself, almost reborn. There’s been times when this band haven’t felt this alive. I have feelings, about tonight, about this, about the fact this might be the last time I see them, or the last time anybody sees them, for all I know.
Because U2 are going on a break. I don’t know how long for. Or if there is a next time. If they want to come back, will they be able to? Will all of us be here next time around?
The following trio of “I Will Follow”, “Gloria” (or “All Because Of You”), and “Beautiful Day”, complete this – each song is themed on a sense of life/death, of spirituality, or birth and rebirth. This tour makes more sense when viewed next to the 2015 “Innocence Tour”. Both shared a common sense and sensibility, explored the same themes, and freed the band from the need to play certain songs. If you got those songs then, you might not get them now.
The second quarter is a long overdue, and effective, reclaiming of the bands Zoo TV era – the period where the band had shed their innocence, become cynical, heartbroken, become men. This period was the first time, I suppose, this band had become experienced. There’s little of the sense of naïve wonder that the band had in their earlier songs – but here is the wisdom of experience, and the knowledge it brings.
For me, the importance of Achtung Baby/Zooropa cannot be overstated. By the time Rattle & Hum came to a close, with its hectoring and overly sincere preachiness, I had begun to tire of the band. When I was 14, and full of hormones and FEELINGS, I felt the absolute punch-in-the-face sincerity of the earlier stuff perfectly. But as I changed, somehow, they changed, and the sense of humour, of mockery, of nuance, that I had grown when U2 weren’t looking, they had also grown. And so, for me, Achtung Baby/Zooropa is the apex of their creative experimentation. (And, also, the maturity of a record that dripped with heartbreak and divorce, served as a warning even in the title. Both a warning about children and love, and the destructive power both contained). When they took a left turn and retreated into the more direct period of All That You Can’t Leave Behind / How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, I felt that the band had put down some of their most effective, most powerful weapons, trading skill for sincerity.
Tonight, the set that runs from Dirty Day > Zoo Station > The Fly > Stay > Wild Horses is a half hour reprise of a bastardised, grown up, Zoo TV. “Dirty Day” sees a return after a twenty five year gap from the stage. Redesigned, and narrated by Bono as a tale about both the bands fathers, and their own fatherhood, “Dirty Day” takes on new, powerful aspects. And seems odd that they didn’t play it for so long. The imagery recycles some from their previous tour, but adds in the context of time and the change from boy, to man, to fatherhood. It’s a perfect addition, and the show now feels incomplete without it. Naturally, the band leave it to the last three shows to play it. But it should always have been there.
The next four songs are a rampage through their best era. “The Fly” sees the venue divided by the band members playing on a stage that cuts through the length of the arena – and the screens above them bombard the crowd with a wall of words and letters that pick out specific phrases of importance. It’s the best presentation of that song I have ever seen.
As a concept, “Experience + Innocence” addresses the same elements as 2015’s “Innocent + Experience” tour, but this time as men : aware of the past, but facing the future, and journeying through it. This time, the band address their future. Even though it was introduced with just three shows to go, “Dirty Day” sees the band marking their point between being sons, their fathers, and fatherhood, in a way that it should always have been in this show. Thankfully, the reprise of the middle quarter has been replaced with a stunning mini-ZooTV set : with huge screens turning into a kaleidoscope of visuals, tickertape words, and messages that capture the sense of being overwhelmed that is exhausting and numbing. These days every time I see the news it feels like being assaulted by madmen who have too much power and not enough thought. “Stay” is brought back as a full band performance for the first time in 25 years. And it is glorious. The main body of the first set closes with “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?” which had become a tour staple for the first time ever : it was an irregular appearance when it was released, and very occasionally played since. And live it sounds better than ever. They’ve nailed the song. It’s never been so good.
One of the things that this tour has done is quite clearly state that U2 don’t need some of the songs they always used to play. U2 aren’t a band where you can take any song for granted in the setlist these days : for example, some of these songs have been absent from setlists for the past quarter century, yet they sound so good that they should be played at every show. Not many bands can say that.
Yet, somehow, I feel you can start to see and sense that this heavy schedule isn’t easy for the band anymore. They play with the passion of young men they aren’t anymore. You can see in how Larry plays that it’s not easy for him anymore : the playing is sparser, very efficient, and very regimented. Being a musician is akin to being an athlete, and there’s a physical limit to what the body is capable of. There’s only so many hits a body can take sometimes.
The second half of the show is the same as the Berlin shows. Stripping away the thematic narrative of the songs, that the band choose songs to sit well together and since each song carries within it multiple themes and ideas, and putting some songs together strengthens the bond and makes each one better by association. What is clear by seeing the band now is that they are working as well as they ever have, and are locked into a fluency, a groove that only comes from being together a long time. Each song flows well into the other, and creates a crescendo.
But this is the last night of the tour. This is being filmed for home release. This is a high stakes show, and the band – and the crowd – both bring something special. Something … more. I’ve not seen a bad crowd at a U2 show, not seen a lax, or unenthusiastic crowd. But this crowd, given how many people have travelled across continents to get to here to say goodbye to their band until who knows when, this crowd, this crowd are somehow more than any other U2 show I have seen. Only the Dublin shows – the original closers to the tour – match it.
Seeing this tour multiple times makes each individual show better though : this is a major production with a strong visual and thematic element as well as a confident, assured performance. Visually, the band have further refined the show for the final show, with new and different visuals for a number of songs, and during “City Of Blinding Lights”, a mosaic of visuals used over the rest of the tour as a thematic arch and reprise of the rest of the tours, including bending back to the visuals used on several songs on the previous tour, making connections between then and now, between innocence of the past, and experience, and the entire era. In some respects the 2015 tour was loaded with earlier songs – innocence – and this tour is loaded with later songs – experience, with last years Joshua Tree shows being the period between.
If you’d said to a U2 fan that over the next four years, we’d see some of these songs as staples of the next three tours – “Zoo Station”, “Fly”, “Wild Horses”, “Red Hill Mining Town”, “Trip Through Your Wires”, “Exit”, “Staring At The Sun”, “Zooropa” – they’d think you were a little optimistic, crazy even. Instead, we’ve had (creatively) a thorough journey through the bands work and history, with many long lost songs returned to the fray, and thankfully, both a full replaying of The Joshua Tree, and a long overdue resting of workhorses like “With or Without You” : they may be great songs, but also, with Pride reaching its 1,000th performance, and Streets on 892 times, Sunday Bloody Sunday on 928, and With Or Without You 826 times, these past three tours have seen a time where there was no guarantee that any of their eleven most played songs was going to be played every night. (It’s only “Beautiful Day” that appeared at every show, and they have played it at every show since they released it).
The final quarter of the show moves into a call for unity, with an imploring “Pride” reimagined and made relevant again, “Get Out of Your Own Way” calling keenly to mankind to remove its own, self-imposed barriers, “New Years Day” being a thematic demand for unification (first, co-opted by a divided Poland but not call for a united Europe), segueing into “Ode To Joy” – the EU anthem before it turns into “City of Blinding Lights”. The use of “Ode To Joy” is canny and wise : the anthem has lyrics around the unity of man under a common ideal :
Thy Magic Power re-unites
All that custom has divided
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings
The final encore sees “One”, “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” and “13”. Bono seems to have cut a bit on the speechifying and the lectures, turning instead to the music to provide a clear and unambigious narrative about the nature of mankind. Not so much recently, but some of the U2 shows have felt more like a political rally than a gig, and here the band have managed the perfect balance than turns the moralising into a nearly subtle art statement, and also an uplifting night of joy and celebration. “One” becomes a sort of hymn, between couples, countries, even band members, and whilst it is obvious, the last two songs are both from the new album, and again, a clear statement. They aren’t old songs or necessarily crowd pleasers, but clear statements of currency and the need to stay connected to the new and the now, not nostalgic recastings of times past. ”Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” is a song written by the band to their children, a thematic passing of the torch to the next generation, and “13” closes the show, to an extent where it started three years ago, inside Bono’s bedroom, with just an idea staving off the darkness, as a scale model of a stylised terrace house illuminated by the roads of their childhood beams out to the arena, and a single lightbulb ascends to the roof : Bono sings clearly that “Darkness gathers around the light”, the lightbulb being a key element here, the idea that saved the lives, changed the band, changed the world in some way, the idea of unity through music, the idea that there is something better out there if we work for it. The lightbulb rises, (and in Dublin at least), Bono sings the opening themes of “The Miracle Of Joey Ramone”, the opening song of the tour three/four years ago, and somehow the tour – and a huge portion of my life – is over. But it is not the end.
Sure, there are other bands, and many of them are brilliant, but none bar one, I think its fair to say connect with me quite the way that this band have, and brought so many people, from so far away, all into my world and made it richer. The nights, all of them, have been an ode to joy, over the past few years. A celebration. I’m not ready for it to end, and maybe this isn’t the end, but a pause before the next thing, the next day. A beautiful day.
You millions, I embrace you
This kiss is for all the world
! Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.
– “Ode To Joy”