In setting up coverage for a week of shows in Boston, we made an intriguing offer to U2’s publicists: pair up an ardent fan (Ian Doreian) with a young, idling journalist (Kevin Killeen). Kevin is a rising senior at DePauw University, and is an editor for the student newspaper The DePauw. Even though Kevin is a trombone and physics major, and is interning with Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, he assumes Joshua Tree was U2’s first album. The idea made sense as U2 shaped their tour around themes of innocence and experience. And as families, young children with “shooting range” ear protection, or young adults with their boomer parents, entered the Garden, the concept was proven out.
Killeen: What song were you most excited to hear in the setlist tonight?
Doreian: “Bad,” no doubt. My perfect U2 setlist requires one of the following three songs: “Bad,” “Running to Stand Still,” or “The First Time.” However, the subdued “Bloody Sunday” surprised me.
Killeen: When Larry Mullen Jr. brought out the marching snare for “Bloody Sunday” it took the song in a new direction. Instead of being a bold anthem about overcoming, it became a slow memorial to the Irish-car bombing tragedy of 1974.
Doreian: So right on. When I hear that song, I start to mime lines from the Rattle and Hum film: Bono’s snide, “What’s the glory in that?” speech. On this tour, however, the focus returned to 33 deaths as pictures of the departed were displayed on the giant video cage. It also transitioned nicely into “Raised by Wolves” from the new album.
Killeen: The tunes from the new album had good reception from the crowd. After “Raised by Wolves” images of Bono’s childhood home transformed into a sea of chaos as Bono and The Edge dueled behind the video wall in “Until the End of the World.” The chaos on the screen cemented into a graffitied Berlin Wall as they played “Love and Peace or Else,” and then the Berlin Wall melted into a backdrop of the American West as an animated Johnny Cash serenaded a swaying audience into intermission while the band caught their breath from an exciting first half.
Doreian: And it was an intermission from dealing with political demons (the troubles in Ireland) into dealing with personal demons (addiction, isolation).
Killeen: Bono was a little more precise with his humanitarian efforts this concert. His two main points were about the Irish car bomb terror attack and HIV progress. At the 360° Tour in 2011, he really made me feel like the world was falling apart.
Doreian: Agreed. The preachy portions of the evening were very tight. Previous tours were filled with disjointed calls for action: halting gun violence via “Bullet the Blue Sky,” protesting Burmese junta underpinning “Walk On,” and building religious tolerance with a CoExist rap. Tonight’s focus on HIV prevention, Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” as accompaniment, was the most impactful work Bono has done in a concert setting.
Killeen: That was an honest message. I wish U2 would give these performances more in places that need to hear these bits. After four shows in Boston, they’ll finish the American portion of the tour in late July with eight (eight!?) nights at Madison Square Garden, NY. But I would love to see U2 get out of their safe zone and connect with other crowds—Bono is too comfortable preaching to the choir.
Doreian: On that, what did you make of the references to “can’t breathe” and singing “Pride” for “Baltimore, Ferguson, and Charleston?”
Killeen: I don’t think he could’ve made those references at a stronger time during the performance, right before “In the Name of Love.” He wasn’t harsh either as he made these quick points; he carried them as a war cry, not a point of conviction.
Doreian: I’m not sure how universal those sentiments carried; that’s always a problem with U2’s message moments. Some things are universally held (MLK), but the soundbite connection with Black Lives Matter can come across as patronizing or not challenging enough to the listeners.
Killeen: Bono is a much better inspirerer than challenger. He’s the preacher, dressed in all black, tells his followers to live in love, and then baptizes them with water spit into the crowd and sings songs of innocence. At least he isn’t self-indulging while he does it.
Doreian: Self-indulging. And I was ready to avert my eyes and ears if that happened tonight. I’ve been jaded by the past couple of albums, the iTunes debacle, but my jaded heart came back to this band. Especially when Bono presented the mic to the sold-out Garden to sing, and we carried two whole verses. It’s something other than nostalgia that gave goosebumps.
Killeen: I still get goosebumps everytime I hear the opening chord to “Vertigo” and think of my first iPod that I lost to the washer.
Doreian: I hear “Vertigo,” and it makes me think of taking a beer and bathroom break.
Killeen: Come on, what’s not to like about their one Spanish song? They played that song early, while there was still a single, yellow light bulb that hung over Bono’s head. It served some minimalist, aesthetic purpose but also seemed to hold symbolic weight as well. During the bridge of “Vertigo,” as Bono crouched, chanting “all of us, all of us can kneel,” he took the tethered bulb with him and then threw it as they exploded into the chorus one last time, the Edge yelling “hola!”
Doreian: That light was a unifying theme for the night, an image of inspiration that Bono found from his mother’s death. To close the show, Bono held a spotlight to illuminate the highest reaches of The Garden. It reminded me of that line from “Song for Someone” when Bono sings, “there is a light, don’t let it go out.” Almost like he was sharing Iris (his mother) with the crowd as a benediction.
Killeen: Bono’s tribute to his late mother, who died when he was 14, was central to the show. During the song, “Iris,” he interacted with the massive, translucent video screen for the first time as he stepped behind it and sang with old videos of her smiling at her wedding and running on a beach.
Doreian: Truly haunting to watch that clip on repeat. And to have the living son singing to this digital memory in front of 1000’s. The new album has Bono reflecting on his mother’s death in overt ways, something that propelled their first album, Boy. I think that after so much public meditation on his dad’s illness and death on previous tours, Bono now feels comfortable dredging up all these emotions about his mom’s death.
Killeen: Yes, but I can’t help but wonder how sincere that moment was.
Doreian: The emotion was real. Even knowing that these setlists and blocking are so polished, I sensed that Bono allowed for more spontaneous moments as the show progressed. There was a sprightly hop at the end of “City of Blinding Lights,” something where Bono was reflecting the audience’s energy to the band. Bono called an audible and they stayed out for an extra song. He motioned The Edge over to Larry’s kit, and Adam joined. The Edge had already taken his guitar off, but Bono convinced them that they needed one more song: “40,” dedicated to the memory of their tour manager, Dennis Sheehan, who died at the start of this tour.
Killeen: The anecdote he told of a young Dennis leading the crowd into singing “One” at Red Rocks really set the mood. And that was revealing to see those few on-stage calls made by Bono. For a band whose live performances stick close to the studio recordings, even down to the last note on the Edge’s guitar solo over “Bloody Sunday,” it was humanizing seeing them improvise.
Killeen: The blocking was precise tonight, and each individual looked comfortable: Bono, putting weight on his back foot and gripping the mic like a rifle; the Edge, tapping his foot and absorbed in his fretboard; Adam, hunched over his low hanging bass; and Larry, cool and collected, with his shirt still unbuttoned and his gelled hair not having moved an inch all concert.
Doreian: After The Edge tumbled off the stage a few weeks back, they better have precise footwork! Bono jokes about not being able to play guitar since his bicycle accident; that’s very different from losing The Edge’s guitar! As an innocent fan, did you feel the show was like visiting a retirement home? For rock stars, and their audience?
Killeen: I am surprised they’re not all deaf, and Adam’s hair was so white! Still, I don’t think U2 has started cashing their rock and roll social security quite yet, but it is worth noting that Joshua Tree was almost 30 years ago. I grew up knowing Led Zeppelin was 30 years ago!
Doreian: Does U2 matter as a contemporary band; are they relevant? Or is this just a nostalgic gravy train?
Killeen: I would say they’ve kept relevant for a number of reasons. Sure their ability to sell tickets and produce good music has helped, but more importantly, they’ve stayed passionate. It’s this same passion that people say forged them into a successful group in the first place: the fire in Bono’s performance, the commitment to perfection in the Edge’s, and the unshakeable loyalty of Larry and Adam. Not only are they still relevant, they’re still influential.
Doreian: Bono’s refrain for the night was, “America is not a country; America is an idea.” Could that explain the band as well?
Killeen: I think the same can be said about U2. They’re not just a band, they’re an idea. Did they always have this larger-than life persona? How did the band of tonight compare to the band you’ve seen for decades?
Doreian: Tough to make a full comparison/contrast. I’ll say that Bono was in full-fighting mode. It wasn’t his boxer’s entrance on Pop Mart, or the crane kicks that opened “The Fly,” but a presence that needed a bit of push back from the audience. Like when Bono was thanking sponsors: Starbucks, Bank of America, Salesforce, and there was some heckling and booing. Bono noted the hostility, and grinned. His response: “the person who needs two pills to live, doesn’t give a fuck who pays for it.”
Killeen: I almost mistook that as sour energy when I heard Bono deliver that line, but he quickly segued that into a perspective-oriented talk about HIV. He explained a recent medical achievement where mother-to-child transmission of HIV can be prevented at birth with some sort of two pills prescription.
Doreian: That’s what I loved about the gruff reply to some negative audience reaction. And as part of the concert flow, I think it spurred Bono. It made for a stellar closing, and perhaps why we got an unplanned “40.”
Killeen: The experienced fans have some powerful feelings about this band. Audience members were screaming like infants, some digging deep into their brain thinking, “what songs could they possibly have left for an encore!?”
Doreian: That was me, yelling “Acrobat.” Boston deserves that magical night when U2 will finally play this deep cut. I’ll be real mad if New York gets “Acrobat.”
Killeen: I think New York will be happy to get “Vertigo.”