The Edge knows that U2‘s ongoing Experience + Innocence Tour – where they play nearly all of their new LP Songs of Experience and skip most of their big radio hits – isn’t for everyone. “We felt like if you wanted to hear the Joshua Tree songs, there was the Joshua Tree tour last year,” he says on the phone from Chicago during an off day from the road. “We knew that were people probably came to the Joshua Tree show that have not come to this knowing it was going to be more weighted towards the new albums, and that’s fine. This is for the fans of our more recent work, the more committed fans who really listen to everything and go to everything. We feel OK about that.”
At what point in the planning stage for the tour did you decide you weren’t going to do any songs off The Joshua Tree?
It came to us, really, as the show was sort of coming into focus. We were actually on the Joshua Tree tour and I started throwing set list ideas towards Bono and [creative director] Willie [Williams] and they were throwing them back at me and early on it became this thing of “Hey, why don’t we just conceive of a show without anything from The Joshua Tree because that’s what we’re doing right now?” If we can avoid playing any songs from The Joshua Tree it would inevitably clear the set list, which would be quite a change, quite fresh, a new sort of thing. Some of those songs we’ve played pretty consistently since they first entered a U2 set list. I don’t think we haven’t played “Where the Streets Have No Name” … might have been one show, but it’s basically been a fixture. We liked the idea that we were forcing ourselves to think in a different way. We felt the result would be something different and fresh.
“Love Is All We Have Left” is a much quieter show-opener than what you’ve done in the past.
When the album was nearly done we started having conversations with Willie and [stage designer] Es Devlin. We also had done the Innocence + Experience tour with the two of them. We made the decision a while ago that this was a two-album set, so the two tours would relate to one another. We all came to the conclusion that the production setup with the screen down the venue of the middle should be retained for the second tour, that that would be the connective tour for the two shows. Then we were like, “OK, that Innocence + Experience show had a real through line and a clear narrative and a shape where we started off as a punk rock band on the main stage and after 25 minutes of pretty straightforward rock & roll this screen finally arrived out of the ceiling. That was a surprise for a lot of people that hadn’t seen photographs of the show. It was like, “Wow.” This object arrives.
For this show, we felt the most interesting thing would be that people come in and there is the object. It’s there already. It’s dividing the venue in two. Rather than starting with a punk rock beginning we were like, “Let’s start with the opposite. Something very still, very meditative.” “Love Is All We Have Left” presented itself as a great song to use to open this show, though it was definitely in response to the last show, but it also felt like a logical opening for this tour and for this record.
Since I saw you on opening night you’ve added “Gloria” into the set.
We’re trying to juggle a few different things here. For sure, the production has a certain impact on how the show progresses. There was a narrative aspect, but we were also trying to hold onto … not that we necessarily have to tell a complete story, but the skeleton, the spine of that narrative was something we found quite useful for us to keep us disciplined and keep a certain direction and focus. The final thing, which is probably why we put “Gloria” in, was finding the right combination of songs that start to generate the momentum of a great show because that’s what people come to see, a great show, a rock & roll band.
On opening night we were slightly unhappy about the fourth song being “Beautiful Day.” It didn’t quite land the way we wanted it to, so we thought, it’s probably just a little early. It’s one of those songs that means so much to people, but probably needs to be given a better setup, so we were looking at also the arc of the show. Part of the thinking was we open at the end of Innocence, “Love Is All We Have Left,” “Blackout,” “Lights of Home.” Those are our three songs that deal with mortality. They are very much songs of experience. Then we felt like, “Great, you open with that. Now you have to go back to the beginning very quickly to start the story from where it really starts, which is the really early days and the Songs of Innocence.”
Although “Beautiful Day” is, to us, the pivot moment, we realized that the pivot moment might be to really go back to the beginning with “I Will Follow” and “Gloria.” It fulfilled two roles. First of all, it helped with the momentum and made “Beautiful Day” feel like you’d earned it when it had finally arrived. And from the narrative point of view it seemed slightly more logical. In fact early on, “Gloria” had been an idea, but we sort of shied away from it because on the earlier tour we had a whole brace of very early songs in the early part of the show. It felt like, “Oh, are we repeating ourselves too much here? Same beats?” But I think it actually means something different in this context because you have this suite of Experience songs and you’ve really started the show in a completely different kind of way.
“Until the End of the World” was never a single, but you seem to play it every tour. What about that song makes it work in any context in your live show?
That’s a very good question. I think it’s an amazing song live because it really showcases everything the band does best. In terms of its visceral energy and impact, it’s one of those songs that’s hard to beat. In the context of these Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience shows, it fits thematically perfectly. It’s got references to mortality, to all the big questions. It’s been a bit like “Where the Streets Have No Name” in that it’s found its way into most of our shows since it was first played live.
Was “Acrobat” a nod to fan demand?
I think we did take a little bit of a nudge from fans of the song and of the band who really thought it would be great to hear live. In planning this tour, we had a smaller pool of songs to draw from since we made the decision to not draw anything off The Joshua Tree. It kind of forced us to start considering deeper cuts and “Acrobat” and “Staring at the Sun.” We played “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” as well. That was fun for us. Having never played it live it was, like, a bit of a project to go back and figure out how it worked. Luckily, as with most of my guitar parts, once you figure it out you realize it’s kind of simple. [Laughs] So that was a nice realization. We tried that in rehearsal and everyone was like, “This is going to work. This sounds great.”
It’s challenging from a sonic point of view because Larry is playing on the tom-toms, which in a big venue can become really indistinct. But with Larry and Joe [O’Herlihy] and his tech Sam [O’Sullivan] working away they really nailed it. They got a great drum sound for it now, which is really working well in the big venues.
You played “Pride” on the Joshua Tree tour, but it felt very fresh when you paired it with the video of MLK and the peace marches of today. Is that why you wanted to bring it back?
The very first set list didn’t have “Pride” in it when we were kicking ideas around six, nine months ago. But as we started to really hone in on the set list we realized that was going to be a crucial moment. “Staring at the Sun” was on the list, but it was really when we started to pair it with the video images that we realized what a pivotal moment it would be, going from it into “Pride.” That really happened in Montreal a number of weeks before our opening night. It was not something we had figured out a long time in advance. That’s the fun and the jeopardy of the way these shows come together for us – a lot of the most powerful ideas come fairly late in the process when you’re starting to piece everything together and you start to see where things are pointing and what the opportunities are.
Obviously, we were going to refer to the politics of the moment. That was an obvious thing for us, but it was a case of how. Without getting into finger-wagging and the stuff that maybe can come over a little trite, we wanted to keep it about issues and make it about the songs finding a new resonance in the times we find ourselves in.
You’re playing in some deeply red states when you hit Tulsa and Omaha. You never say “Trump.” You show the marchers. It’s an effective way to get your message across.
Yeah. I think what’s coming through now, even more strongly since the first couple of shows, is this theme of really making it about issues and not tribal politics and that compromise is not a bad word. We’ve seen it in Ireland. We’ve seen it up close in the most difficult circumstances, how people with histories that you would assume make them completely incompatible politically have found ways to find common ground over issues and move forward. I think Bono certainly in his own work with the One Campaign has found great success working with people with political beliefs that he just can’t agree with. But he can agree on one or two issues and that’s enough to move forward. I think we really didn’t want to get into a kind of name-calling or finger-wagging. We wanted to get to the important stuff and deal with that. That’s the way forward.
The video before “One” with your daughter is a nice way to get into women’s rights.
Yeah. Sian is so not a kind of performer by nature or attention-seeker. She is very zen and very still and not self-conscious, not a show-off. That quality in her has made the image very powerful.
Ending on “13 (There Is a Light)” is a quiet, dark way to end the show.
It is very somber, but the whole show is challenging. It was very challenging to fit it together and get it to flow and make sense technically and musically and storytelling-wise. The challenge for us is also not to panic if that the thing that most often happens in a U2 show, which is just the place goes completely nuts … This is a show where people are watching and thinking as well as dancing around the room. And that’s OK. Ending on “13” is really not a U2 thing to do. Traditionally we would end on a kind of big crescendo, a big number and leave everyone exhausted. This is a very contemplative place to bring people.
You’ve toured a lot in the past few years. Will you take a long break when this one ends?
I think there’s been three tours that have been on each other’s heels pretty quickly. I would say that we’ll probably take a little bit of a break at the end of this tour and regroup. There’s lots of ideas for the next records, but I think a bit of time off just to listen to music and to really feed our creative instincts is in order.
I spoke to Adam and he said the Apollo Theater show is going to be very different and full of surprises. Can you say anything about that?
I think the venue and lack of production leads us to think about it as something quite distinct. So, yeah, we haven’t figured it out yet. By my instincts say it will be a more raw, lo-fi affair rather than … We’re utilizing technology in a very major way with this show, so I think we’ll go the other way for that show.