By Jon Pareles, The New York Times
TULSA, Okla. -- Love and hope contend with trauma and dread in U2's Experience + Innocence worldwide arena tour, which opened Wednesday night at the BOK Center here. Positive thinking isn't guaranteed to prevail; the state of the world is too unsettled for U2 to make promises. For decades, the band has treated arenas and stadiums as havens of community through shared songs. This time, the singalongs are mixed with warnings and pleas to save an endangered American dream.
Call it ambitious or call it presumptuous, but it's rock that arrives with a sense of mission -- so much so that U2's echoing chords and martial beats have long since become shorthand for earnest idealism in what remains of current rock. Becoming a voice of conscience is a job that few of the long-running rock bands who can still command the arena circuit -- Bruce Springsteen excepted -- are willing to shoulder. But on Wednesday night, U2 got its audience loudly chanting "No more war!" in the middle of "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
The new tour is the sequel to U2's 2015 tour based on its 2014 album "Songs of Innocence." It uses a more technologically advanced version of that tour's setup, with a large and a small stage at opposite ends of the arena connected by what U2 calls a "barricage," a walkway enclosed by transparent video screens that can place the band members inside giant images (now with improved resolution). Dozens of speakers, many of them overhead, create an unobtrusively sensational system that sounds equally clear from every spot in the arena. It exposes and revels in the physical grain of U2's live arrangements; the candid fervor of Bono's voice, the resonant drive of the Edge's guitar riffs and the tensile strength of U2's rhythm section, Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen Jr. on drums.
One tech upgrade was underwhelming: an augmented-reality app, "The U2 Experience," that turned Bono into a gleaming, spectral figure on phone screens for just one song. Perhaps the app will have more moments as the tour progresses, though monitoring the show on a hand-held screen diminishes it. (The concert heads to NYCB Live in Uniondale, L.I., on June 9; Madison Square Garden June 25-26 and July 1; and Prudential Center in Newark on June 29.)
U2 released "Songs of Experience" late in 2017, after a six-month tour commemorating the 30th anniversary of its best-selling album, "The Joshua Tree." That tour -- offering familiar old songs -- was the kind of concert that might be expected from a band that released its debut album way back in 1980. But U2 remains determined to address the present, a much more arduous choice. "Songs of Experience" was delayed not only by the "Joshua Tree" tour but also by rewrites following Brexit and the 2016 American elections. The album repeatedly glorifies love as a force for both redemption and resistance, but also sees obstacles: "Democracy is flat on its back," Bono sang in "Blackout," which also wonders, "Is this an extinction event?"
Titles aside, the two albums aren't a balanced pair. "Songs of Innocence" was focused, with specific names and places, on Bono's childhood, which was marked by the loss of his mother and by a 1974 terrorist car bombing in Dublin. "Songs of Experience," meanwhile, is the more generalized reflections of a longtime rock star and do-gooder. Before singing "Iris (Hold Me Close)," a "Songs of Innocence" track commemorating his mother, Bono announced, "Tonight's show is a very personal story."
It was a story of clashing, contradictory impulses and of a shift from individual to public figure to societal conscience. Songs from across U2's catalog echoed or rebutted one another, answering righteousness and uplift with doubts and misgivings. At one point, video effects turned Bono into his demonic alter ego from the 1990s, MacPhisto, who cackled, "When you don't believe that I exist, that's when I do my best work"; it was the lead-in to "Acrobat," a song about self-deception and hypocrisy from U2's 1991 masterpiece, "Achtung Baby," that it hadn't previously performed in concert. In 2018, it was searing: "Don't believe what you hear, don't believe what you see," it begins.
Bono introduced "Staring at the Sun" as a song about "political blindness -- the kind that can tear up a home or a nation"; the accompanying video showed images of white nationalist and neo-Nazi rallies and streetfighting. It was followed by its counterweight, "Pride (in the Name of Love)," with images of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and protests for women's and minority rights. "Pray for the regeneration of the American dream," Bono urged afterward. Slogans about equality and fairness were projected during "Get Out of Your Own Way," from "Songs of Experience."
The dialectic continued even into the encores, with the tenacious closeness and harsh recriminations of "One" followed by the anthemic solace and wordless arena chant of "Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way." But instead of ending the concert with an affirmation of unity, U2 chose something more somber: "13 (There Is a Light)." Bono sang it alone on the smaller stage, with the rest of the band across the arena; "Darkness gathers around the light/Hold on," the song urged. When it was over, there was no final group bow, no basking in group solidarity or applause. He walked down into darkness, alone.
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