By Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune
There was beauty and bombast, tenderness and ham-fistedness, and a tale of "innocence" and "experience." It was the best and sometimes the worst of U2 in an ambitious multi-media show Tuesday, the first of two concerts at the United Center.
The Irish quartet -- Bono, still in fine voice; The Edge and his armada of guitar foot pedals; the rock-ribbed rhythm section of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. -- isn't phoning it in, even though it just came off the type of tour that is typical of heritage bands with several decades of hits. Last year's 30th anniversary stadium jaunt for its most popular album, "The Joshua Tree," raked in nearly $317 million on three continents.
But the current tour is focused on the band's recent music, drawing heavily from its last two studio albums, "Songs of Innocence" (2014) and "Songs of Experience" (2017), and reflecting on how childhood hopes and dreams collide with diminished adult expectations and disappointments. In excising such concert favorites as "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Mysterious Ways," "New Year's Day" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," the band instead decided to make the case for two studio albums that sound like some of the most expensively made collections of blandly produced rock music in recent decades, watered down versions of U2 imitating the bands that imitate U2.
In the past, the band has often stripped away the fluff on stage and amped up the drama in its new songs, both visually and aurally. Could it do the same Tuesday? The results were mixed, but the show was rarely dull. The two-hour concert was sometimes stupefying, sometimes riveting, and brimmed with ideas, if not always the most proficient means of realizing them.
The show was spread across the arena floor, with two stages joined by a walkway enclosed by a scrim, onto which images were projected that interacted with the musicians and illustrated the story line of the band members' upbringing in Dublin and their subsequent growth into rock social-justice warriors.
A section of the 2015 tour, which focused on the "Songs of Innocence" album, was included in Tuesday's opening set, and it remains the strongest part of the evening. The band blasted through its early music ("I Will Follow," "Gloria") with verve, and found the tenderness inside the yearning for home and family in "Iris (Hold Me Close)" and "Cedarwood Road." The storming "Until the End of the World" served as an appropriately apocalyptic capper to the show's first half.
The rest of the show pushed outward, a theme articulated by a rare performance of the 1991 track "Acrobat." It was as if the band were waiting for this precise moment in history to finally include the song in a tour set list. "Don't believe what you hear, don't believe what you see," Bono sang. The singer introduced the track in his guise as MacPhisto, the devilish circus carney from the final leg of the "Zooropa" tour in 1993. MacPhisto was Bono's way of caricaturing himself, a full-of-himself rock star embodying his own cartoon image.
Later, the cartoon got the best of him. "American Soul" may be the clumsiest and least persuasive of U2's political songs, a plea for unity through a red-white-and-blue bullhorn with a huge American flag as a backdrop. It rang hollow following a series of songs that savaged the reawakening of the white-supremacist movement in America.
U2 was best when it became smaller than its larger-than-life anthems aspired to be. "Staring at the Sun" was dusted off, from one of its least-loved albums, the underrated 1997 release, "Pop," and reinvented as a yearning acoustic duet between Bono and the Edge. And "13 (There is a Light)" ended the show with Bono alone, his path illuminated by a lone lightbulb - the very place where the "Songs of Innocence" tour began in 2015. For U2, the quietest moments resonated loudest.
U2 set list Tuesday at United Center:
1. "Love is All We Have Left"
2. "The Blackout"
3. "Lights of Home"
4. "I Will Follow"
6. "Beautiful Day"
7. "The Ocean"
8. "Iris (Hold Me Close)"
9. "Cedarwood Road"
10. "Sunday Bloody Sunday"
11. "Until the End of the World"
16. "You're the Best Thing About Me"
17. "Staring at the Sun"
18. "Pride (in the Name of Love)"
19. "Get Out of Your Own Way"
20. "American Soul"
21. "City of Blinding Lights"
23. "Love is Bigger Than Anything"
24. "13 (There is a Light)"
Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.
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