Bono gave me goose bumps.
It happened at an unexpected time: It was about two-thirds of the way into their two-and-half-hour set, the first show of the spectacularly staged Experience + Innocence tour's two-night stay at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday. The U2 singer and his guitarist compadre, the Edge, did a solo acoustic version of "Staring at the Sun," a gem from the band's largely forgotten 1997 album Pop.
The singer described the song from the band's self-consciously garish period — Bono called it "psychedelic" — as being about "willful blindness," and it at first came across with a beautiful languor, as the Edge strummed and the lifetime bandmates' voices intertwined.
But what happens when you stare at the sun too long, and ignore the world around you? You lose touch, and if not careful, get burned. And suddenly the song's blissful idyll was shattered. Bono (born Paul Hewson) and Edge (real name: David Evans) were still harmonizing on the circular second stage located on one end of the arena floor, but the giant rectangular double-sided video screen above that was filled with images of disharmony.
And hate: Tiki torch-wielding white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va. were on the march, and swastika-bearing neo-Nazis paraded the streets. This is what happens when Western democracies fall asleep at the switch, and fear and intolerance are allowed to rear their ugly heads, the images said. Despite all of Bono's globalist rock star statesmanship, all hope seemed nearly lost.
But in the darkest hour … that's where the goose bumps came in. Cue "Pride (In the Name of Love)," the undeniable anthem from the Irish band's 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. Wipe those heinous people off the screens, and replace them with a superhero come to save the day: Martin Luther King Jr. — "One man come in the name of love" — locking arms with civil rights activists.
The song is a warhorse, the band is practically prehistoric — "A dinosaur wonders why it's still on the earth," Bono sang self-mockingly in "The Blackout" from last year's Songs of Experience — but in a sold-out sports arena (where many mentions of the Eagles' Super Bowl triumph were made from the stage), U2's heroic earnestness still cut through the noise.
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U2's catalog is redundant with songs that extol the power of love. The show began with Experience's "Love is All We Have Left" and "Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way" was an encore song, but "Pride" is one that always works. Along with "One," the encore centerpiece, it still gives chills after all these years. The song is unwavering in its conviction and unruinable even when Bono sings though that dang megaphone he's unfortunately fond of.
The challenge for U2 as they play live 42 years after their formation is that the four Dubliners are, as always, striving to be relevant. And the trouble is, the songs that were the clear highlights of Wednesday's show — and, perhaps counterintuitively, the most relevant to issues facing the world in 2018 — are all really old.
This tour is called Experience + Innocence because it aims to represent not only the uneven Songs of Experience, but 2014's Songs Of Innocence as well. That latter album's reception was marred by the famous miscalculation of delivering the music for free to all the world's iTunes music libraries, only to find that many people didn't want it there.
So the tall order for the show was to incorporate the material from two albums that don't rank near the top of any U2 fan's favorites into a coherent narrative while also delivering enough choice cuts and the transcendent highlights like those cited above to sate the loyal fan base.
Did it work? Well enough. The show is framed as a telling of the life story of the band, from Bono's beginnings on "Cedarwood Road" in Dublin, to his lifelong efforts to connect to the spirit of his mother Iris, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage when he was 14 and was shown in home movies on the giant screen.
That screen — similar to one used by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd during his stand at the Wells Fargo last year — was used imaginatively throughout the evening.
It looked cool. Bono sauntered on a walkway both above and below it, literally moving through animated imagery that depicted the streets where he and his bandmates grew up. Later, the Edge's daughter Sian, who's shown on the Songs of Experience album cover, was shown as a giant moving through a CGI version of the Philadelphia skyline during "City of Blinding Lights." In other amusing moments, an enormous Bono seemed to hold a tiny guitar-playing Edge in the palm of his hand.
The unifying idea coursing through the set is that "wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience," a concept drawn from religious scholar David Bentley Hart's book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.
Early on, on the main stage, there were songs from the two recent albums, along with cuts from the bands beginnings such as "I Will Follow" from 1980s Boy and "Gloria" from 1982's October, both of which made stellar use of Edge's trademark careening-out-of-control guitar sound.
A brief animated intermission followed, featuring a graphic novel cartoon version of the band being driven on the road to perdition, complete with a customized speech balloon that read "Can you drop us off in Philadelphia on the way back?"
The band then played a tight, powerhouse mini-set underneath a disco ball on the rounded stage at the opposite end of the room. Bono wore a top hat and acted the flamboyant master of ceremonies, even reviving his devilish MacPhisto character from the 1990s in a monologue that referenced President Trump and Kim Jong Un. (Later, he said that the North Korean dictator regards Edge as "a weapon of mass devotion.")
That part of the show was about the loss of innocence and the confusion that comes with fame. But more importantly it was driven by combustible rockers that showed the band still packs plenty of raw power. "Vertigo" included a snippet of David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel," and "Desire" found drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and white pompadoured bassist Adam Clayton harnessing a beastly Bo Diddley beat.
"Staring at the Sun" and "Pride" followed, as the show moved into its homestretch, in an attempts to neatly wrap up the innocence-regained theme that was muddled. Deeply personal moments were mixed in with political ones, as a prerecorded Kendrick Lamar rap from the Experience album was coupled with the heavy riffage of "American Soul."
That song circles back to the familiar themes about democratic ideals and the idea of the United States as a refuge that now seems severely under threat and that U2 has been fixated on at least since 1987's Joshua Tree. That album's 30th anniversary was celebrated across the street at Lincoln Financial Field last year in "the city that gave us America," as Bono called it Wednesday, but no Joshua Tree songs whatsoever are played. Sorry, you had your chance.
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Like all great bands that stick around seemingly forever, U2 are burdened by the weight of their illustrious past. After finally giving in to nostalgia with the Joshua Tree tour, Experience + Innocence aims takes the measure of all that the band's been through, and bring it back to the place where it began for them decades ago.
No matter how hard the band works to keep it fresh, the unavoidable reality is that we've been on this road with them many times before. Still, the performance is reassuring — though their new material falls far short of their best work, U2 still delivers the goods and can be truly thrilling at times. And while they'll always be a band best known for their dramatic flair, this show also demonstrated their experience has given them the wisdom to appreciate the value in small, less flamboyant gestures. The night closed with "13 (There is a Light)," a gentle lullaby which featured Bono exiting the stage through the crowd, urging his audience to keep the faith by quietly singing "there is a light, don't let it go out."