The last time U2 played a stadium concert in America it was nearly 12 years ago at the tail end of their disastrous Popmart tour. Terrible record reviews and half-empty stadiums for their gigantic production brought the band’s spirits to an all-time low. “If we come back again I think it’s going to be something very different,” Bono had told the crowd at Seattle’s Kingdome. “Because I don’t think we’ll ever be able to afford this again.” Their next two American tours were stripped down affairs confined entirely to arenas, but last night at Chicago’s Soldier Field U2’s 360° Tour returned to American stadiums with the biggest concert stage ever built. It was, in every way, a huge success and proof that rock & roll can work in venues designed for 80,000 screaming football fans.
The show began with a recording of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as steam began shooting out of the claw-like stage the band has dubbed “the spaceship,” making it seem like it was about to launch into orbit. As the lights went out, the band ran onstage and kicked into an electrifying “Breathe” from No Line on the Horizon. It was the first of four consecutive tracks from the album. That’s often a recipe for sucking the life out of a crowd, but the anthemic songs translated perfectly to the stage and few seemed to mind the glut of new material. In fact, the only track played in the first hour of the show not written in the 2000s was a rather tepid version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Before “City Of Blinding Lights,” Bono briefly discussed President Obama, who played the track at many of his campaign rallies. It wasn’t the only political moment of the evening. The stage was light green during “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to show solidarity with the dissidents in Iran. Bono dedicated “Walk On” to jailed Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. During the song about 50 people walked onstage holding photos of Kyi up to their faces like masks. Before an encore of “One,” a video Archbishop Desmond Tutu played where he spoke about aid to Africa.
After nearly a quarter-century or more in near constant rotation, U2 finally retired concert warhorses “Bullet the Bullet Sky,” “New Years Day” and “I Will Follow” — as well as more recent live favorites like “Mysterious Ways” and “Until the End of the World.” That left room for not only the majority of the new disc, but rarities like the title track to 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire (not played stateside since 1987) and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” which hasn’t been performed since Zoo TV in 1993. The latter — one of only two tracks from U2’s stellar 1990s catalog — was one of the show’s highpoints. Bono wore a laser-coated suit while singing the song into a target shaped red microphone that lowered down from the sky like a boxing announcers mic. “Your Blue Room” — a fantastically rare song from the band’s 1995 Brian Eno collaboration Passengers — has been reportedly rehearsed at great length recently, but unfortunately wasn’t played at the show.
Stadium shows of the past have been marred by lousy sound and an incredible distance between the performers and the vast majority of the crowd. To overcome this U2 not only constructed an incredible soundsystem, but built a round stage with long ramps that stretch out far into the crowd. This meant Bono could never face the entire crowd, so Edge and Adam Clayton picked up the slack and made sure to often be on opposite sides of the stage. Even Larry got up from behind his kit for a dancehall remix of “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and walked around the stage with a tiny drum. Despite their efforts, it never felt as intimate as an arena, but was pretty much the best possible setup for a venue of that size.
After a crowd sing-along “With Or Without You” Bono told the crowd to wave hold their cellphones into the air. “Turn this place into the Milky Way,” he said as a giant disco ball came out on top of the stage. The simple effect truly made it seem like the stadium had reached outerspace, with thousands of cellphone lights turning into stars. They ended with an emotionally charged “Moment of Surrender,” perhaps the best song they’ve written this decade. As they took their final bows to thunderous applause, Bono looked quite pleased as he walked up to the mic one last time: “Thank you,” he said. “What an opening night!”