Let’s be honest — U2 would probably sell the same amount of tickets if they stood stock-still on milk crates, lit solely by iPhone flashlights, and banged out versions of tried and true hits recorded more than three decades earlier. The mere chance to see a band with its original lineup intact and airtight through a lifetime of musical telepathy trumps any and all possible pyrotechnics. The fact that Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. strive for anything more is a testament to their artistic verve and well-documented devotion to fans. But to launch a spectacle like the eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE Tour at Madison Square Garden is something else entirely. Somewhere between an extension and a continuation of 2015’s iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour, it’s a daring blend of technology, theater, politics and four-on-the-floor rock ’n’ roll.
Dividing the two productions was last year’s blockbuster 30th anniversary tribute to The Joshua Tree, a rare look backwards which inadvertently provided a foil for the band’s 2018 road rules. eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE relies heavily on their recent twin full-lengths, 2014’s Songs of Innocence and 2017’s Songs of Experience, eschewing Joshua Tree anthems like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You.” In their place are deep cuts like the never-before-performed Achtung Baby track “Acrobat” and the long-dormant 1997 single “Staring at the Sun.”
The band revisits their past in a more visceral way through their state-of-the-art sets. The stage, similar to the one used on the eXPERIENCE tour, is effectively three in one: the traditional stadium ledge and a smaller circular secondary stage, both connected by a somewhat indescribable catwalk/LED screen combo that bisects the venue lengthwise.
An animated rendering of Bono’s childhood street is projected in larger-than-life grandeur during the deeply affecting “Cedarwood Road,” and war-torn Troubles-era Dublin street scenes are recreated for a stark version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” stripped down to its punky bar-room bones — and Mullen Jr.’s tattoo snare for good measure.
Politics are a major through-line in this loose parable of jaded men attempting to recapture their innocence. “Staring at the Sun” was capped with footage from white supremacy rallies in Charlottesville (and beyond), and 1984’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” drew a namecheck for its inspiration, the late Martin Luther King Jr. Victims of the 1974 terror bombings in Dublin and Monaghan were also memorialized with a photo montage and cry to bring the still-unknown perpetrators to justice.
One of the more surreal moments of the night occurred when Bono resurrected his ZooTV Tour persona MacPhisto, a top-hatted, Trump-spouting manifestation of Mick Jagger’s “Sympathy for the Devil” character, complete with a ghoulish clown face provided courtesy of what appeared to be a Snapchat filter.
By stripping away the obvious set staples, the band pulled off the neat trick of building up new ones. 2014’s “The Blackout” served as a rousing (almost) opener, and “Get Out of Your Own Way” brought the crowd to its feet as the show approached its climax. The encore began with the one-two punch of “One” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way,” but instead of ending on a bang, the show flickered out like smoldering embers with a delicate version of “13 (There Is a Light).” Confident that they had nothing left to prove, Bono and Co. finished the song and slipped out an unassuming exit door in the middle of the auditorium as the final notes echoed throughout the stadium.
Bands of a certain age often have a complex relationship with their past. U2’s stubborn refusal to become a nostalgia act may frustrate some fans but the results are always enthralling.