Sunday, May 24, 2015

U2 thrills capacity crowd in Phoenix

U2 performing "Even Better Than the Real Thing" on "in Phoenix on May 22. 
Photo: Robert Kinsler
U2  no other band has ever worked so hard for so long to remain relevant. And as the Irish quartet proved in the first of two sold-out concerts at US Airways Center in Phoenix on Friday night (May 22), the 39-years-young foursome remains rock's reigning heavyweight (sorry Mick).

U2's fusion of mind-blowing technological stage and dazzling state-of-the-art suspended sound system, and catalog matched by only a few Rock and Roll Hall of Famers tell only part of the story. The band's ability to touch, inspire and dream is also a part of any great U2 concert experience, and that is exactly what greeted the faithful for 140 glorious minutes in the Valley of the Sun. Casual concertgoers got a great show too (even if many of them only saw it via their smart phones).

The design of U2's current Innocence & Experience Tour is impressive, from a ceiling-mounted sound design that brings equal clarity throughout the arena to a catwalk that runs the length of the venue with the band featured at various times on both ends and on a long catwalk. There is also a suspended gigantic projection screen that doubles as a footbridge where the band members perform while fusing their performance with images further empowering the songs. It all worked flawlessly in Phoenix.

 U2 in action in Phoenix. Photo: Kim Kinsler
But all the futuristic theatrics and glitz wouldn't mean a thing without good music and, of course, U2 also had that covered. Opening with the spirited "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" off the band's latest album Songs of Innocence (count yours truly as one who appreciated iTunes' gift last year), it was clear a strong-voiced and energetic Bono has mostly recovered from a serious November 2014 bicycle accident. That song  a reflection on the band's connection with its own past and falling in love with rock  was the perfect salvo to launch an opening half that celebrated U2's beginnings. "The Electric Co." (which was among the highlights at U2's set at the US Festival 32 years ago, the first time I caught the band live) was next, a high-octane post-punk anthem with Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton powering the rhythm section, while The Edge's soaring guitar work sounded crisp; Bono then recalled those early days of U2, blending a part of Judy Collins' "Send in the Clowns"  and The Who's "I Can See For Miles" into the song. The band's first big success, "I Will Follow," was also featured early in the set.

Because the band's latest album is focused on their past (specifically the north side of Dublin in the 1970s), new material filled the beginnings-minded first half. Walking out on the catwalk, Bono delivered his single best vocal of the night with the beautiful "Iris," a bittersweet song written for his mother (who died when he was 14 after suffering a cerebral aneurysm at her father's funeral). While he sang the song, images of stars soon gave way to photos and home movies of his late mother. Things then grew more intense as the band roared into "Cedarwood Road," a rocker that had Bono walking inside the suspended screen against artistic images of his Dublin youth while the Edge powered his electric guitar and moved below.

A heartfelt version of "Song for Someone" (written by Bono for his wife Ali) and stripped down "Sunday Bloody Sunday" were other early highlights. Even better was "Until the End of the World," where U2 ended the first half with a blistering performance enhanced by visuals of the four performing in a raging sea.

U2 performs "Invisible" in Phoenix. Photo: Robert Kinsler
While songs throughout the generous concert often segued into each other, every song was its own statement. "Invisible," which opened the second half, had all four members performing inside the suspended screen with their images coming in and out of view; "Even Better Than the Real Thing" not only had many in the crowd moving to the beat but found the band members performing amidst larger-than-life projected images of themselves (irony galore!). But there were moments of simplicity too; a raw semi-acoustic "Desire" was just as memorable and featured Bono blowing on his blues harmonica.

The only exception to the concert's perfect arc was when the band invited a fan up to play acoustic guitar on "In God's Country." The fan was overzealous and kept wanting to first hug the band members and then run around without regard for the performance. It was funny when the fan tried to approach Mullen; the drummer held up his drum sticks like a cross (as if Peter Cushing was warning off Christopher Lee's Dracula) and successfully warded off the crazed fan ("I want to thank our friend from Colorado," Bono said after the fan left the stage. "Ritalin is also good").

The incredible thing about the performance was the blend of huge special effects and intimate moments that connected 21st century U2 with the quartet's early '80s selves. Edge playing sparse piano while Bono sang the gorgeous "Every Breaking Wave"; a poignant "The Hands That Built America" flowing into a rousing "Pride (In the Name Of Love)"; a stunning "Beautiful Day" where the band performed while Earth was seen at night from orbit rotating above them. The house lights grew bright as the audience joined Bono in singing robustly along for "With or Without You," images of angelic Joshua Trees illuminated on the big screen.

U2's encore continued to provide waves of magic, from the sparkling "City of Blinding Lights" and faithful "Where the Streets Have No Name" to the gospel-tinged night ending "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."

"Why are we still here?" Bono rhetorically asked the crowd toward the end of the fast-moving night. "I think you answered the question tonight. There's still so much new for us to do."

Setlist at US Airways on Friday night, May 22, 2015:

Main Set: 
The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) 
The Electric Co. / Send In The Clowns (snippet) / I Can See For Miles (snippet)
I Will Follow
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Cedarwood Road
Song For Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Raised By Wolves
Until The End Of The World

Second Set:
Even Better Than The Real Thing
Mysterious Ways / Young Americans (snippet)
In God's Country
Sweetest Thing
Every Breaking Wave
Bullet The Blue Sky 
The Hands That Built America (snippet) / Pride (In The Name Of Love)
Beautiful Day
Bad / Moment Of Surrender (snippet)
With Or Without You

City Of Blinding Lights
Mother And Child Reunion / Where The Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

Robert Kinsler

No comments: