U2’s arena-ready rock has been imitated to death, but there’s no denying that Bono and company still know how to keep a crowd of thousands on its feet. On Wednesday night, the band brought its Innocence + Experience Tour to the United Center, kicking off a five-night stand in front of an audience that included comedian Chris Rock and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger.
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Neither of those luminaries actually made an appearance onstage, leaving the spotlight to Bono, who showed up sporting blond locks and a pair of shades (naturally). “They all have their stories, but I have the microphone,” he quipped to his bandmates before launching into a series of deeply personal songs, including “Iris,” a tribute to his deceased mother. The first half of the setlist drew heavily from U2’s recent release, Songs of Innocence, making a case for the strength of the songs themselves by improving upon the often limp arrangements that bogged down the record.
The balance between spectacle and performance was also enhanced, eschewing the sprawling 360 Tour setup in favor of a comparatively simple stage and walkway. A catwalk suspended from the venue's ceiling and sandwiched between two gigantic, translucent LED screens proved to be the production's visual focal point. At one point, Bono scaled the apparatus and walked through a virtual rendition of the street he grew up on. Later in the show, the entire band played “Invisible” atop the hanging platform and, just before a brief intermission, the massive screen was transformed into a section of the Berlin Wall.
The evening’s second half was heavy on fan service, digging into U2's catalog with renditions of "Mysterious Ways" and "Elevation" (which was broadcast live on the Meerkat streaming app with the help of a fan). It also played host to an intensely self-aware moment in which Bono simulated a conversation with his younger self, who accused him of speaking like an American and having more money than he needs. Calls for a stop to racial violence in the U.S. punctuated the main set, as songs like "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "Beautiful Day" were recast as platforms for the group's various social causes.
As the night came to an end, ballads like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" were played under glaring house lights that made the audience a part of the performance. There's a reason that the group doesn't need to play a summer music festival—its songs are most impactful in an environment where (nearly) everything is under its control. At the United Center, U2 harnessed nearly 40 years of experience in a set that touched on innocent themes and weighty issues, further cementing the band's reputation as a live act to be reckoned with.