Coming off the most massive and highest grossing concert tour in history, U2 could have either copied the same successful formula or thrown the entire rule book out the window. Considering this is the same group who chopped down “The Joshua Tree” with “Rattle And Hum,” it is no surprise that the latter was the more obvious choice for the Innocence + Experience Tour, which found the most enduring rock band of the last three-and-a-half decades trading excess for introspection during a two-act, tech-savvy journey that vulnerably exposed the members’ souls more than ever before. On the Monday of a near sold-out, five-night stand at Chicago’s United Center, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. may have been the stars, but the must-see-it-to-believe-it screens they brought along were just as much of a factor in the overall experience. Projecting images representing both the personal and sociopolitical (and sometimes spiritually thought-provoking), it was a constant barrage of hi-definition multimedia spanning the two hour-plus show. The first half spent the bulk of its focus on last year’s Songs Of Innocence, a fine return to early form effort, no doubt, but one marred by an entirely free iTunes rollout demonized as spam by non-fans.
Nonetheless, the band sounded just as confident as ever on opener, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” evoking the ghosts of its early ‘80s punk beginnings, which made “The Electric Co.” a fitting follow-up with its bombastic spirit sounding like it could’ve easily been a part of these current sessions. Come “Iris (Hold Me Close),” the screens that spanned the entire periphery of the arena floor kicked into gear showing photos of the deceased mother of Bono, who after giving one of his most revealing introductions ever, became fully immersed in the bittersweet tribute.
By “Cedarwood Road,” the singer literally stepped inside the screens and took a virtual trip through the landmarks of his childhood, by far one of the most visually striking references of an increasingly engaging experience that culminated in the bursting “City Of Blinding Lights.” As captivating as it all was, the heavy reliance on such innovative production also exposed how the normally superhuman Bono (now 55 and still healing after a bike accident) was operating at a much slower speed than usual, especially when ditching his signature sprint for a mere hand raise during the otherwise incendiary, “Where The Streets Have No Name.”
The set list also left a bit to be desired, not just for being a little too top-heavy with the current collection songs, but also in the omission of classics like “One,” “Desire,” “Bad,” “All I Want Is You” and “40” (in spite of them showing up on other dates). Sure, it was a surprise to hear the debut of the clubby “The Crystal Ballroom” and charming to catch the less frequently performed “Sweetest Thing” (especially as Bono played piano), but did precious encore time really need to be spent on the start of Paul Simon’s “Mother And Child Reunion” or singing “Happy Birthday” to actor John Cusack with so much relegated to the cutting room floor?
Thankfully, though, the band ended on the stronger note of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (accompanied by the crowd serving as the church choir), which found members walking down the lengthy catwalk one by one and laying down their respective instruments when they reached the backstage door. It was a chilling way to end an evening whose shortcomings weren’t substantial enough to alter U2’s “best band in the world” standing. But with slight shifts in the set list and an elevated presence from its front man, the brilliant concept could have been even better.