U2 faced a big decision when the Joshua Tree Tour 2017 wrapped up late last year. The stadium extravaganza – which featured a complete performance of their 1987 LP and grossed $316 million across just 51 shows – could have become a very lucrative, easy template for all future projects. Why toil in the studio for years on end to produce a new album when most people just want to hear the old songs and remember their youth? Why not submit to the same fate of nearly every other veteran rock group in history and simply give up on forward motion?
The opening night of their Experience + Innocence Tour at Tulsa’s BOK Center was conclusive proof that they’ve decided to take a very different path, one that is much more difficult to maneuver but is a hell of a lot more interesting and far less predictable. The best example of that is a list of the songs they did not play at the show, which includes “New Year’s Day,” “Bad,” “Mysterious Ways,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Bullet the Blue Sky,” “With or Without You” and, astoundingly, “Where the Streets Have No Name” or anything else from The Joshua Tree. These songs have been the backbone of their live show for decades. Some of them haven’t been skipped a single time since they came out, and yet they dumped them all overboard and built an entirely new set out of what remained.
Paradoxically, this brand new show is in many ways a continuation of a tour that wrapped up three years ago, Innocence + Experience, and even uses the same stage that separates the arena into two halves with an immersive video screen the band literally enters. There’s also a seven-song block in the first half (“I Will Follow,” “Iris,” “Cedarwood Road,” “Song for Someone,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Raised by Wolves,” “Until the End of the World”) that’s almost beat-for-beat the same as the Innocence + Experience tour. And while hardcore fans are likely to grumble about the repetition, they should remember that that tour hit a mere 10 North American cities and many people didn’t get to see it. Also, it’s a pivotal segment because it shows Bono’s turbulent childhood where he endured the loss of his mother amid horrid political violence around his hometown of Dublin. Cutting it would have meant removing the heart of the show.
Before all that, the evening began with Bono standing alone in the middle of the translucent video wall singing the “Love Is All We Have Left,” the opening track from Songs of Experience. This was the big moment where fans were told to take out their cellphones and watch through the band’s new app for an augmented reality moment. And while the giant, ghostly image of Bono that it produced on your phone was pretty cool, what was even cooler is that it drained your battery with stunning speed, a gentle encouragement to put your phone away for the rest of the night.
The rest of the band then took the stage for an explosive rendition of “The Blackout,” which was always destined to be the greatest live tune from Songs of Experience. “Lights of Home,” Beautiful Day” and “All Because of You” followed, setting up the Songs of Innocence period of the night, where Bono explores his own past, taking the audience on a voyage from innocence to experience. And even if people aren’t following the intricate, carefully choreographed story he’s telling, it still works as just a fabulous run of songs.
The story of Judas and Jesus in “Until the End of the World” wraps up the first segment of the evening and the group vanishes while a recording of “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” (still the best part of the dreadful Batman Forever) becomes the soundtrack to a series of comic-book images on the big screen showing the band’s journey to experience as if they were superheroes. They return for a one-two-three punch of “Elevation,” “Vertigo” and “Desire” that gets the crowd all riled up before Bono begins speaking in the familiar voice of Mr. MacPhisto, his devilish alter-ego from the 1992/93 Zoo TV tour.
“I haven’t seen this guy in quite a while,” Bono said. “I’ve been a busy little devil. But you’ve made it all so much easier for me these days. … The truth is dead and the KKK are out on the streets of Charlottesville without their silly costumes. Who would have thought? When you don’t believe that I exist, that’s when I do my best work.”
What happened next was a moment right out of the wildest dreams of countless U2 die-hards. They finally played “Acrobat,” the one song from Achtung Baby that’s never been done in public a single time. (We have to take just a little bit of credit since we begged the band to do this nearly every time we’ve spoken to them in the past few years.) “Acrobat” was written around the time the Berlin Wall went down, but it worked perfectly in the age of Trump with lines like “Nothing makes sense/Nothing seems to fit” and “Don’t believe what you hear/Don’t believe what you see.” It may have been a bathroom break for some in the audience, but for the fans that spent days waiting in line for the best possible spot on the GA floor it was a moment of sheer exaltation and absolute shock, presuming they avoided spoilers from the band’s rehearsals in Montreal.
The show got only more interesting and less predictable from there. A stripped-down “You’re the Best Thing About Me” (with Larry Mullen Jr. on bongos) gave way to an acoustic “Staring at the Sun,” unplayed since 2001 and a rare onstage acknowledgment that Pop is a thing that happened. It was accompanied by disturbing images of neo-Nazis waving swastikas and Confederate flags in Charlottesville last year. Unmentioned was Donald Trump and his assertion that there were “some very fine people on both sides” of that skirmish, but it didn’t need to be said. The sequence also gave new meaning to lines like “God is good but will he listen” and “Will we ever live in peace.”
Hits from the 1980s were definitely not the order of the night, but the band earned the right to play “Pride (in the Name of Love)” after that. They did it in a novel way with all four members of the band stationed at the four corners of the arena while images of Martin Luther King Jr. marching for peace played on the screen along with footage of modern-day activists counteracting the hate in Charlottesville. “Sing with us, Tulsa,” Bono said. “A beating heart of America beating loudly today tonight with a strength that the rest of the world may not understand, but we get it. Irish people understand that division is so much easier than unity and that compromise is so much harder than closing your eyes, so sing with us Irish boys. I’ve been told the American dream is the one you can’t have when you’re sleeping, so tonight we’re dreaming with our eyes wide open. … The American dream is still alive here tonight in Tulsa.” That’s how you draw a meaning out of an old song that’s not just easy nostalgia.
The main set wrapped up with Songs of Experience tunes “Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul” (both much more powerful onstage than on record) and “City of Blinding Lights,” another 21st-century song in a slot usually occupied by an old warhorse. Feminist slogans like “Poverty Is Sexist,” “We Can Make History Herstory” filled the screen before the band kicked off the encore section with the Achtung Baby deep cut “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” which they haven’t touched in 12 years. It was followed by “One,” “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” and “13 (There Is a Light),” during which Bono came upon a mini replica of his childhood home at the end of the B stage that opened up to reveal a single lightbulb on a string suspended from the ceiling. This is exactly how the 2015 Innocence + Experience shows began, bringing the whole affair full circle.
It’s likely that some fans walked out of the arena complaining that they didn’t get to hear their favorite hits, but it’s hard to feel bad for them considering the last tour was nothing but the classics and every tour prior to this was packed with them. This was the perfect time to do this. Let’s just hope the group has to courage to stick to this plan and not surrender to “With or Without You” or “Where the Streets Have No Name” at future dates. As great as those songs are, they’ve been done a lot and the group has so much more to offer. And now that we finally got “Acrobat,” can we dare to dream of getting “Drowning Man” or even “Lady With the Spinning Head?” Hearing those mega-rarities seemed impossible before, but after this incredible opening night almost anything feels possible.
1. “Love Is All We Have Left”
2. “The Blackout”
3. “Lights of Home”
4. “Beautiful Day”
5. “All Because of You”
6. “I Will Follow”
7. “The Ocean”
8. “Iris (Hold Me Close)”
9. “Cedarwood Road”
10. “Song for Someone”
11. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
12. “Raised by Wolves”
13. “Until the End of the World”
18. “You’re the Best Thing About Me”
19. “Staring at the Sun”
20. “Pride (in the Name of Love)”
21. “Get Out of Your Own Way”
22. “American Soul”
23. “City of Blinding Lights”
24. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”
26. “Love Is Bigger Than Anything”
27. “13 (There Is a Light)”