U2 (photo: Kate Haley)
When presented with a last-minute opportunity to catch a 22-time Grammy Award winning rock and roll band, it’s hard to say anything but “Hell yes!”
U2, as cheesy and overinflated as you might want to say they are, rock. After seeing them firsthand at the SAP Center on Monday night in San Jose, I have no doubt. I might still question Apple abruptly inserting the 2014 album Songs of Innocence into my iTunes without my consent, but I eventually stopped skipping the tracks when they come up.
There was no opener and the show started about quarter after 8pm. The arena floor was split by a catwalk that extended from one elaborate stage to a small circular platform. Suspended above the catwalk was a second-story catwalk shrouded in a unique, nearly transparent video filament.
The band took the stage following a video intro playing over the song “Love Is All We Have Left” and began performing “The Blackout,” followed by “Lights of Home.” All three selections were from last year’s Songs of Experience, the musical counterpart to their 2014 album.
The band returned to the main stage set up for “Beautiful Day,” which included a tease of the 1969 Jimmy Cliff classic “Many Rivers to Cross.” By 8:45, U2 returned to their 1980 debut album Boy for “I Will Follow,” which also included a cover tease, this time of Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion.”
Eventually, the 1980s version of U2 peeked through as The Edge channeled his rebellious punk rock youth — this rebellion taking shape of reviving raw ’80s guitar tones. Next was the tour debut of “Gloria,” a heavily religious song that dates back to the 1981 album October. Continuing to drop teases and quotes from other songs, the band naturally found themselves in the middle of the classic Them tune of the same name. Bono’s excitement during this part of the set had him calling out solos from the band and engaging the audience as though he was trying to keep from being blown away in an air hangar. It might sound cheesy, but I swear it was rock and roll.
The next three songs spanned U2’s catalog and personal history. From 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb they launched into their single “All Because Of You”, followed by “The Ocean” from Boy, before slowing things down considerably with the somber new tune “Iris (Hold Me Close)” around 9pm.
Edge looped on one guitar before trading out for more tone and Bono walked out onto the catwalk. By a quarter after 9, we were taken down the bluesy streets of “Cedarwood Road” as animated images of the band’s early life taking over the visual screen. One by one the band took to the catwalk; drummer Larry Mullen Jr. even picked up a marching snare drum so that he could join the others.
Imagery of nationalism-based graffiti was shown on buildings’ backside alleyways alongside an acoustic rendition of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The song ended with only Mullen remaining on the catwalk, drumming a lone beat in time, ending with an on-screen atomic bomb as the arena cut to dark.
But the music was still pumping. It was slow, heavy, and menacing. For a minute I felt like they were lurching into some kind of Primus tune, but after the intro it was clear that the band was just flexing their rock and roll muscles. The song was “Raised By Wolves,” and it ended with a ferocious melody juxtaposed with Bono reciting Psalm 23 in memory of the lives lost in the May 17, 1974 bombings in Ireland.
”Until The End of the World” from 1994’s Achtung Baby took off with cycling strobe lights while each member of the band spread out and interacted with separate corners of the arena. By 9:30, small bursts of confetti streamed down from the rafters. An animated visualization of a flooding ocean took over the screen, washing away artifacts of the band’s childhood lives, home furnishings, and clothing. The stage went dark.
A comic book-style animation introduced the audience the second part of the show. Playing during the intermission was the band’s contribution to the 1995 film Batman Forever, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” The scene ended with a thought-provoking message: “Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the expense of experience.”
In immediate contrast to the dark scenery, the high energy of “Elevation” saw large full-color animations. By this time, a full secondary drum kit had been assembled at the small circular stage and the band played the next few songs, “Vertigo” and “Desire” there. At one point Bono took a fan’s recording phone and recorded his vantage point from the stage and returned the phone to the crowd.
This whole portion of the show was filled with intense psychedelic patterns that flashed and rotated. Bono adopted an outrageous, sneering accent and fully embodied the devil’s advocate he had been singing about.
By 10, they had wrapped up a tease of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” as well as originals “Acrobat” and “You’re The Best Thing About Me” before delivering the acoustic hit “Staring at the Sun” from 1997 album Pop.
During “Pride (In the Name of Love)” Bono ran around the stage with a bullhorn while messages flashed along pillars in an animated sequence. The messaging became more dramatic with phrases like “Don’t Shoot,” “Vote,” and “Fight Back” while the band played the song “Get Out Of Your Own Way”
For the final song of the set, U2 performed “City of Blinding Lights,” screening a striking animation depicting a young girl’s lifelong exposure to war, death, and violence. The show ended at 10:30 with Bono dedicating endless gratitude “to the women and men of the U2 crew who work to build this great city. So many built this city tonight.”
They returned for a three-song, fifteen-minute encore, taking the audience through “One,” “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way,” and “13 (There Is A Light).”