Live Review: U2's Intimate Apollo Theater Show - Rolling Stone
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U2 Recapture Their Club Roots at Intimate Apollo Theater Show

The group mixed early classics and ‘Songs of Experience’ tunes with big surprises at this unique SiriusXM concert

Live Review: U2 Elevate The Apollo Theater At Rare Intimate ShowLive Review: U2 Elevate The Apollo Theater At Rare Intimate Show

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U2 were a little over halfway done with their special SiriusXM show at New York’s Apollo Theater when Bono paused for a moment to soak up the atmosphere and address the crowd, which was a mixture of super hardcore fans, lucky contest winners, industry insiders and celebrities like Steve Van Zandt, Jon Bon Jovi and John McEnroe. “We couldn’t have come all the way to the Apollo without bending one knee to the place,” he said. “Let’s try the song we first played here when we came here in nineteen eighty whatever it was.”

He was talking about 1988’s Billie Holiday tribute “Angel of Harlem.” And as the group launched into it, a backdrop lifted to reveal the 13-piece Sun Ra Arkestra horn section. The surprise moment took an already stellar show – which was a supremely rare opportunity to see the group in intimate setting minus their usual bells and whistles – and elevated it to a whole other level. The horns stuck around for a euphoric “Desire,” a re-worked “When Love Comes to Town” and a moving rendition of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” that they dedicated to Anthony Bourdain and others we’ve lost recently. “It’s been a funny few years,” he said. “We lost a lot of very inspiring, useful people and gained a few useless people.”

Three of those four those songs had not been played even a single time on U2’s ongoing Experience + Innocence tour, but U2 were clearly determined to make this gig (which is being broadcast on SiriusXM later this week) a one-time-only gift to the fans. It began about an hour earlier with three consecutive songs from their 1980 debut LP Boy: “I Will Follow,” “The Electric Co.” and “Out of Control,” making good on Adam Clayton’s promise that this would be a “proper old-school theater show.” But with the Apollo’s orchestra seats taken out to make room for sweaty, crammed general admission pit in front of the stage, it really felt more like a proper old-school club show, albeit one where servers walked around offering free beer and wine. (It stood in stark contrast to the SiriusXM Guns N’ Roses show of last year where they played the exact same set they’d done all tour and barely acknowledged the fact they were playing a place 40 times smaller than their typical venues.)

After the explosive opening trio of songs, they stepped back into the 21st century with “Red Flag Day,” “All Because of You” and their modern-day standards “Vertigo,” “Elevation” and “Beautiful Day.” These songs were nearly genetically designed to get soccer stadium-size audiences whipped into an absolute frenzy, but they’re equally effective in the relatively tiny confines of the Apollo. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” was one of the only mega-hits they played during the show, and they used it as a chance to shine a spotlight on Martin Luther King on the 50th anniversary of his death and call out singer-activist Harry Belafonte who was seated somewhere in the balcony.

It briefly seemed like the show was going to end with “Stuck in a Moment,” but then Bono and the Edge came back for a stripped-down rendition of “Every Breaking Wave.” It was the first time Bono has performed the Songs of Innocence standout tune in nearly a year, so he can be forgiven for flubbing the first verse and starting over. It was an absolutely beautiful moment and a reminder that the song deserved to be a huge hit – presuming that sort of thing was still possible for any rock band that predates the streaming era, let alone one that formed when Gerald Ford was president.

“Every Breaking Wave” transitioned directly into “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” the only Nineties song in the entire show. It was a very welcome return since they dropped it after the opening night of the Experience tour in early May. It was greeted by squeals of delight from the fans crammed near the stage. They followed it with a transcendent “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” to end the show.

After just a single day off, U2 will resume the Experience + Innocence tour in Philadelphia and stay on the road through the end of the year. It’s a carefully choreographed production where most of the elements remain the exact same from night-to-night, and a deeply satisfying one that’s bolder than just about any arena show we’ve ever seen. But for this lone evening at the Apollo, which is destined to circulate in the U2 bootleg community for years to come, they proved that the true majesty of their live show isn’t in their augmented-reality app or enormous HD video screen or state-of-the-art sound system. It’s in the songs themselves. 

Set List
“I Will Follow”
“The Electric Co.”
“Out of Control”
“Red Flag Day”
“All Because of You”
“Beautiful Day”
“Pride (In the Name of Love)”
“Get Out of Your Own Way”
“American Soul”
“Angel of Harlem”
“When Love Comes to Town”
“Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”
“Every Breaking Wave”
“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”
“Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way”

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