In the evolution of the U2 live experience, no amount of stage production and artistic direction has outshone the performance prowess of the band itself. But Friday night’s show at T-Mobile Arena might've been an exception.
The first of two Vegas gigs last weekend was an arena rock revelation despite a few lackluster moments from the Irish quartet. Of course, elevating the large-scale concert experience is part and parcel of U2’s legacy. But its just-started Experience + Innocence tour—a sequel to 2015’s Innocence + Experience jaunt (which only played in 10 US cities, none of them named Las Vegas)—is easily its most impressive live presentation since 1992’s groundbreaking Zoo TV trek.
The band essentially played in the round with two stages on either side of the general admission floor and a long catwalk that connected them, with band members (especially Bono) frequently performing from the latter—though it was during their time in between two 100-foot-long LED screens hovering above that demonstrated the technological potential of modern concert production.
During the Zeppelinesque “Cedarwood Road,” Bono seemed to walk a sketched-out version of the street of his youth that scrolled right as he strolled left. Later, from the smallest of the two stages, the singer held his hand out so it appeared his projected image was holding guitarist The Edge in his palm hand during “Until the End of the World,” giving a new dynamic to the U2 concert staple.
The band even implemented an augmented reality component for the elegiac opener “Love is All We Have Left.” Audience members who previously downloaded the U2 Experience app could view the elongated screen through their phone and watch Bono seemingly growing out of it. However, the app’s use was limited to that image and song.
“Love” was just one of nine songs from Songs of Experience performed Friday night. Add three from 2014’s Songs of Innocence, and that’s nearly half the setlist. While I’m a lot more eager to hear an act’s new material than the typical concertgoer—and this is the Experience + Innocence tour, after all—U2’s recent companion albums lack the artistic vision and/or compositional strengths typically found elsewhere in its catalog. In particular, the clunky, derivative rocker “American Soul” and the cheese-laden power ballad “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way”—along with Bono’s fatiguing vocals—weakened the end of the main set and the encore in comparison to the rest of the show.
That said, the visual complements added some heft to some of those newer numbers, such as 2015’s “Iris (Hold Me Close),” where Bono appeared to join his mother (the subject of the song), who was depicted in a looped video. Other songs were boosted by the live setting, including post-punkers “Red Flag Day” and “Raised by Wolves.”
U2 rewarded longtime and die-hard fans with a handful of well-executed chestnuts and deep album tracks. Early-era fave “I Will Follow” and “Gloria” actually inspired pogoing from the general admission floor. “The Ocean” (from the same era) appropriately featured waves of riffage from The Edge, motivating Bono to rightfully ask, “How beautiful is it to listen to these three men play?” And even though the guitarist isn’t known as a prolific soloist, his incendiary playing during the climax for “Acrobat” was the instrumental high-water mark of the evening.
Another goose-pimpling moment included the visual segue from footage of white supremacists to that of Martin Luther King, Jr., mixed with Edge’s chiming introduction for “Pride” and Bono—channeling David Bowie—changing his megaphone exclamations from “This is not America” to “THIS is America!”
Bono threw in lyrics to other artists' songs throughout the night, seemingly more so than he has in previous tours. John Lennon’s “Mother” found its way into “I Will Follow.” The Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)” came in just before the yeah-yeah-yeah ending of “Vertigo.” And in a sort-of local nod, Elvis’ “Burning Love” doubled the boogie factor of “Desire.”
U2 further personalized the show for the capacity audience. A couple of numbers featured map imagery of Las Vegas or flyover video of the Strip, the latter beautifully joined by Edge’s skittering fretwork and whomever was discreetly churning out the uplifting synth melodies during “City of Blinding Lights.” And “One” was dedicated to those who lost family in the October 1 shooting, Bono expounding on the galvanizing spirit of a community that swiftly came to the aid of those most affected. Awash in the glow of thousands of lit-up cell phones, he added, “That’s the America we know.”