It was about 10 minutes past 8:00 p.m. when the lights dimmed at Vancouver's Rogers Arena and "Beat on the Brat" by the Ramones began blaring out of U2's massive sound system, kicking off the group's long-awaited Innocence + Experience Tour. As the band took the stage to a deafening roar from the sold-out crowd, they launched into "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" under a single light bulb suspended from the ceiling, meant to evoke Bono's childhood bedroom.
The group that took a 29,000-square-foot stage known as the Spaceship around the globe on their last tour was now moving forward by going all the way back to where it began. They were honoring the music that first inspired them to pick up instruments, as well as the physical space where that happened. To drive the point home further, the song transitioned directly into "Out of Control," U2's debut single from 1980. "We're a band from the north side of Dublin called U2," Bono told the crowd, as if he'd traveled back in time. "This is our first single. Take it, the Edge." Not a single screen was activated, giving the crowd at the front of the general admission floor the sensation of seeing the band at tiny club in Dublin 35 years ago.
After getting the audience into a frantic state with "Vertigo," they went right back to their earliest days with "I Will Follow" before Bono paid tribute to his late mother with "Iris (Hold Me Close)." A giant curtain of LED screens hung above the catwalk in the middle of the arena, connecting the main stage to the B stage – they came alive with still images of Iris Hewson and video of a young Bono. "This is a night about first experiences," Bono said before playing the intensely personal song. "We don't want to stay in the past for too long because I'm told that's not good, but if you don't go to the past at all I'm told you end up staying there, so we're going to visit the past now for a few minutes."
The journey back continued with "Cedarwood Road," another Songs of Innocence tune about Bono's early years. For this one, the singer climbed between two sets of LED screens in the center of the arena and appeared to be actually walking down the street where he grew up. Most every line in the song was animated, down to the "blossoms falling from a tree." It wasn't a very complicated effect, but it was extremely well-executed and more than a little surreal. The animation then zoomed inside Bono's house for "Song for Someone," a sweet ode to his wife Ali. Young Bono was shown siting in his room under Clash and Kraftwerk posters, strumming a guitar while present-day Bono stood underneath and belted out the tune. Like many moments from the show, it was about the past and present colliding.
When the tune ended, Larry Mullen Jr. strapped a single drum onto his chest, marching band-style, and began pounding out the familiar beat to "Sunday Bloody Sunday" as he walked toward the center of the catwalk. This was a new, slower arrangement of the tune, with Edge on acoustic guitar and Adam Clayton on electric bass. The rage from the original was gone, replaced by quite anguish. Sticking to the theme, they followed it up with "Raised by Wolves," a new track about the troubles in Northern Ireland. Victims of terrorist bombing flashed on the screen, and Bono ended the song literally down on his knees praying for peace.
It's worth noting that the group's innovative new sound system, which utilizes a series of speakers hung from the ceiling spread evenly throughout the venue, sounded absolutely amazing. Just about every other live act in history simply stacked their sound equipment near the stage and blasted it out across the entire house, almost deafening a chunk of the crowd in the process. This new approach results in far a cleaner, crisper, significantly less abrasive acoustics. It deserves to become the new standard.
The band, meanwhile, followed the two political songs with a killer rendition of "Until the End of the World." Bono sang the tune from the B stage at the far end of the arena. He spent most of the night there and on the catwalk, meaning that fans who waited for hours to get in front spent much of the show craning their necks to see him. Note to future concertgoers: Don't obsesses over your spot on the floor. There isn't a bad spot down there because the action is spread across the entire arena. This is really a show that plays well to the entire house, not just the lucky few in front.
What came next wasn't so much an intermission as a video interlude that ran while the band briefly left the stage – a montage of 1970s punk icons like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith and Devo talking and playing bits of their music. U2 haven't had much of a connection to the punk scene since the early days of the Reagan administration, but it clearly remains close to their hearts.
They resumed the show with all four members playing "Invisible" on the catwalk, Larry on a mini stand-up drum kit. The energy dipped a bit because the song was unfamiliar to many and the group only faced half the crowd, but it picked right up again when they kicked into a fast "Even Better Than the Real Thing," which concluded with the whole band moving to the B stage for the euphoric "You take me higher" coda. The vintage hits kept coming: a funky "Mysterious Ways" and then "Desire," before a piano rose from the floor for a sing-along "The Sweetest Thing."
For this one, Bono invited a punky teenage girl onto the stage to film them with her cell phone, which was connected to the main video screen. She did a pretty good job, and it was maybe the only time in concert history that somebody using a cell camera wasn't irritating. As Larry and Adam walked offstage, the Edge sat then down at the piano to play a gorgeous rendition of "Every Breaking Wave" with Bono. It's possibly the best track from Songs of Innocence, and this new arrangement clearly trumps the one on the album.
The night throttled back into high gear with a one-two shot of "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)." The former song was accompanied by images of the stock market and Wall Street workers, seemingly suggesting that the damage once done by American fighter jets is now being done by men in suits at giant financial institutions. The band wrapped up the main set with "The Troubles" and a stirring "With or Without You," both of which Bono sang on the B stage while the band played on the other side of the arena.
When the encore began, the first voice to emerge from the speakers was that of Stephen Hawking: "One planet, one human race," he said through his famous speech-generating computer. "We are not the same, but we are one." It sure seemed like the setup for "One," but it was "City of Blinding Lights" followed by "Beautiful Day." They were good reminders that U2's run of hits lasted far beyond the 1980s and 1990s.
If even the most devoted U2 fans had 500 guesses at the next song, they probably wouldn't have gotten it. After a brief speech about the AIDS crisis, they played a portion of Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion." It was paired with a video about the disease. "Every day there are more than 600 children born with AIDS," the screen read. "We can make it zero." This sentiment got the crowd roaring, and the roar grew louder when the Edge played the opening notes of "Where the Streets Have No Name." It's clear why they've played this at practically every show they've done since the song was new nearly 30 years ago: It can whip a crowd into a frenzy like few songs in rock history. As red lights bathed the stage, Bono ran around and displayed no obvious signs that he had been in a devastating bicycle accident six months ago. He's healed up quite nicely, even though he's still unable to play guitar.
"We were gonna end on this," Bono said. "But we'll do one more." It was "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," a concert staple that had previously never been used as a closer. Everyone in the crowd stood up and joined in on every word. (The Edge actually accidentally stepped off the stage during the song and was helped up by security guards. He later posted a photo on U2's Instagram showing a slight arm injury with the caption, "Didn't see the edge, I'm ok!!") The show wrapped up with the band walking off the B stage one by one. Bono raised his hands in triumph and high-fived fans as he walked off, and the house lights turned on nearly two and a half hours after the show had begun.
It's been a tough year for U2. Beyond Bono's accident, the free iTunes release of Songs of Innocence generated a huge backlash and the album failed to produce a real hit. But U2 have done much of their best work when their backs are against the wall. They played this show like a young band with something to prove, and this tour is only going to get better as the year goes on.
"The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)"
"Out of Control"
"I Will Follow"
"Iris (Hold Me Close)"
"Song for Someone"
"Sunday Bloody Sunday"
"Raised by Wolves"
"Until the End of the World"
"Even Better Than the Real Thing"
"Every Breaking Wave"
"Bullet The Blue Sky"
"Pride (In the Name of Love)"
"With or Without You"
"City of Blinding Lights"
"Where the Streets Have No Name"
"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"