TVD Live: U2 at Capital One Arena, 6/17

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNSIt was only last year when U2 hit the stadium circuit for a kind of nostalgia immersion with the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree. The give and take for the band’s 2018 tour boasts smaller venues—if hockey arenas can be considered small—and a largely lesser known album to promote, last year’s Songs of Innocence.

Eight of its 13 songs made it on the band’s 24-song setlist at the CapitolOne Arena in Washington Sunday, an event that drew both former secretary of state Madeline Albright and NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell to the very section I was in (making me feel so young!). Yet the charismatic and ever-political Bono largely strayed from the topical world—aside from a roster of protest posters projected on the arena-length cage before the show. Compromise was the word he stressed; not love (not sure how well that one was landing in the epicenter of the divide).

By now you can take the band out of the stadium but not the stadium out of the band, in a show which stressed as much if not more of the video screens, special lighting, catwalks, and B-stages as they did on football fields. The setup was complicated to figure out even if you were watching it, but it involved a main stage on which the four members only occasionally performed together as one, a smaller one at the other end of the area that took up a lot of the second half of the show, and between them a walkway with 80 feet of screens on both sides that illustrated each song differently and allowed the band members (but mostly Bono) to walk through a video projection instead of just having it behind him.

It was spectacular, yes, and the sound was ringing. Hats off to a band that has solidly maintained its original lineup for so long and has not augmented it with a dozen players on stage just because they could (on the other hand, it wasn’t immediately clear where all the synthesizer washes were coming from on some songs; playing along to tape is not a good alternative).

The song selection was different, of course, with only a half dozen hits repeated from last year’s show—and nothing at all from The Joshua Tree. As generally unnecessary as all the video gewgaws were, so was the notion that they had to string together some kind of narrative to hold the show together. Once, believe it or not, bands stood on a stage and held the attention of fans for a whole night’s concert without requiring such things.

The narrative here, Bono made clear, was a kind of retrospective of the band whose last two albums were the Blakeian Songs of Innocence and December’s Songs of Experience. What was their experience? Did it rob them of their innocence? If U2 annoyed the whole of Apple owners by installing Innocence on everybody’s iPhone upon its 2014 release without permission, here was a new ploy: Installing three-fourths of of Experience into their concert.

Starting with three songs from the new one before anyone knew what happened (and were still trying to locate the band amid the flashing video screen walkways), they returned to its personally reflective songs of growing up. On Father’s Day he was saluting his mother in “Iris (Hold Me Close),” and reminiscing about his old street “Cedarwood Road” in the way his countryman Van Morrison used to do on “On Hyndford Street,” “Cyprus Street,” and “Take Me Back.” It managed to emerge as one of the better U2 songs in a while by looking inward instead of outward.

While plotting this story, they were able to insert a few crowd pleasers along the way. While in Belfast, he recalled its “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and its apocalyptic feel (“Until the End of the World”). Donning the top hat, devil horns, and makeup of Mr. MacPhisto, he recalled the heights of U2 which he seemed to associate with not its best choices. Still, “Elevation,” “Vertigo,” and “Desire” seemed to establish the swirl of the moment. This all happened on a second stage with its own visual features, but in a process of elimination there was an acoustic approach to things like “Staring at the Sun,” done as an acoustic duo with Bono and the Edge (when’s the last time they did that?).

The night’s highlight was still “Pride (in the Name of Love),” its beat provided this time by a single snare from Larry Mullen Jr., performing as if in a march on the walkway. Eventually the band showed it owned the arena’s every corner by spreading out north, south, east and west—one player at each spot as the anthem rose and the crowd sang along. (At the same time, how much of Martin Luther King’s dream has come true? This was the whitest crowd you’d see in an arena for any event.)

The two newer songs that followed it, meant to be a message to America, were a couple of the clumsiest of the night—“Get Out of Your Own Way” and “American Soul”—both a precipitous fall from the “City of Blinding Lights” that followed it and closed the main set.

Returning with “One,” Bono indicated it was about something different than when it was first presented, raising the possibility that it maybe it was never about anything at all. More squishy platitudes from the new album followed, “Love is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” and “13 (There is a Light),” wrapping up the home-finding story by fishing a lightbulb out of a playhouse.

Interesting, weird, occasionally exhilarating (and if you ran, you could still catch the Metro before its 11 p.m. Sunday closing). And look, at least they didn’t stuff anything in your phone when you weren’t looking.

SETLIST
Love is All We Have Left
The Blackout
Lights of Home
I Will Follow
Gloria
Beautiful Day
The Ocean
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Cedarwood Road
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Until the End of the World
Elevation
Vertigo
Desire
Acrobat
You’re the Best Thing About Me
Staring at the Sun
Pride in the Name of Love
Get Out of Your own Way
American Soul
City of Blinding Lights
One
Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way
13 (There is a Light)

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