U2: can’t teach an old dog new tricks

Bombastic, larger-than-life, even bigger than Bono’s ego: the 360 Tour was everything people love and hate about U2. A band never to repeat itself, the four Irishmen set out to change on the Innocence+Experience tour. And didn’t entirely succeed… but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

360 was a huge beast. It was a space station that flew around the globe, filling stadiums everywhere. It was a spectacle, it was entertaining. But it remained a space ship, something strange, unconnected to real life.
The idea for that tour, as Bono has explained again and again, arose during a dinner with show designer Willie Williams in 2005 towards the end of the Vertigo Tour. The singer wanted to bring the band and audience closer together. U2 in the epicentre of its admirers, that was the idea. So with a couple of forks he illustrated an arch in the middle of a stadium, with a stage in the middle.
As in all good designs, form always follows function. Unfortunately, this time Bono turned that logic around: first the idea, then the album (No Line on the Horizon) to accompany it. But that album was hugely experimental and personal, not remotely suitable to play in stadiums. But the 360 concept and tour were already there and booked, and in the end by all financial means a success.

The idea this time around for Innocence + Experience was initially to have more flexibility in the set-list, and to have two completely different nights. Bono has always been a huge admirer of Pearl Jam, a band that changes its set-lists completely every night. And with a double album scheduled, it was a great opportunity to pursue this idea of more variation.
In the end, they didn’t manage to pull it through. Partially because the second of the two albums, Songs of Experience, simply isn’t ready yet. Partially because the band felt they didn’t want to give people the feeling they were visiting the ‘bad’ night. But most of all, U2 probably discovered they prefer the idea of telling a story with their concerts. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and that proved to not be a bad thing at all.

To put it even bolder: not since the Achtung Baby days has U2 delivered such an intimate, coherent tour. Zoo TV (1992 & 1993) was and still is groundbreaking: a multimedia extravaganza that anticipated the confusing, hyperactive society that arose with the breakthrough of the internet in the nineties. It was a relevant story, with relevant and emotional songs.
That is exactly the case on the Innocence + Experience tour. The first twenty minutes tell the story of a post-punk band in its early days: U2 at the end of the seventies. The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) is an exuberant start for a gig and a fitting tribute to the Ramones. What follows is one of their earlier singles (Out Of Control, Electric Co, Gloria), followed by Vertigo and I Will Follow. Urgent, no-nonsense rock music, almost without a lighting and video show.

The huge screen, which runs the length of the arenas, only springs to life for the second part of the show. Here form truly follows function: the videos support the story of four people growing up in Dublin in the eighties, and the intimate songs get the intimate treatment they deserve. Bono talks and sings about the death of his mother Iris, about his youth in Cedarwood Road, about writing a Song for Someone who proved to be his one and only love (his wife Alison Stewart). And then the theme switches to the troubles in Ireland, to bombings in Dublin, with songs such as an acoustic Sunday Bloody Sunday, Raised By Wolves and Until the End of the World. The accompanying images silence the audience. And not unimportant: the new songs from Songs of Innocence sound much better live than on the album, though most of them will never become U2 classics.

After a short intermission the band return out of nothing, playing behind the screens, making their way towards the ‘Experience’ mini-stage at the other side of the arena. They slowly move on to the next phase of their career, mainly featuring songs from Rattle & Hum and Achtung Baby.
But again they deliberately silence the crowd: new song Every Breaking Wave gets an intimate, piano-and-vocals only rendition. October functions as the soundtrack to horribly beautiful pictures of a bombed city in Syria during sunrise, Bullet the Blue Sky gets another incarnation as anti-war-song, and during Zooropa even Bono admits that ‘he has no compass, has no map, and no reasons to get back’.

By this time the band is 100 minutes into their show, and haven’t compromised on the story they wanted to tell at all. Seven new songs have been played, and only two or three hit singles.
Crowd-pleasing is something different, and that’s what they do in the last half hour of the show. U2 knows they can’t sell tickets for upto 200 euros without banging out a couple of anthems, those are the laws of arena shows. So Where the Streets have no Name, Pride and With or without you close the set, and the encore is one big sing-along as well. But by that time, the band that once sang ‘Stories For Boys’ has already shown it still has some relevant stories to tell.

U2, Innocence + Experience Tour: seen on September 24th, 25th & 29th at Mercedes Benz Arena, Berlin