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U2 @ United Center

Where: United Center
When: June 24th, 2015
Grade: 4.5 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed and Photographed by: Neil Miller, Jr.

If there is one lesson learned walking away from U2’s opening of a five night stint at the United Center this evening, it’s that U2 is more than just Bono (and his signature sunglasses). Like many monumental rock bands of the last several decades, the frontman often becomes the band to a lot of people.  Until tonight, I was one of those people.  After witnessing U2 perform to an arena the size of the United Center, however, the way the band functions as a unit while still managing to make every person feel like they have a front row seat, is really a sight to behold.  Before this evening, I was more of an old school U2 fan — I grew up with their first few albums and, of course, The Joshua Tree made a huge impact on the music aficionado in me upon its release — but the Innocence + Experience show was immersive and captivating enough to inspire me to really dig into their last ten years’ worth of material.

As one would expect, tonight’s festivities were catered more towards U2’s newest album, the unavoidable Songs of Innocence, but the show was tailored to include all flavors of their fanbase from the casual listener to the U2 fanatic whose favorite tunes are all deep cuts.  The latter, for instance, probably got a nice kick out of the band’s inclusion of Boy treasure, “The Electric Co.” as well as Achtung Baby fan favorite “Until the End of the World.”  The band’s performance, though, was more of a standout than any one song on the setlist.  It doesn’t take a music historian to know that The Edge is one of rock’s most fervent and inventive guitarists.  Once you actually watch the man play guitar in the same room as yourself, only then can one really understand the extent to which this man is some sort of guitar mad scientist.  The way he plays is less about crazy riffage and more about allowing his instrument to create a unique atmosphere that is truly all his own.  Watching him pummel out the riff to “Cedarwood Road” was more impressive than the crazy business that was happening on U2’s massive stage setup.

The stage set-up, however, was just as much a star of the show as the music and the band.  The way U2 serves up their music on this tour is impressive to say the least, but the show seemed to really be designed with the audience in mind.  The band’s gigantic walkway made of see-through screens allowed everyone to see nearly everything that was happening onstage.  Whether the band was performing inside of the set-up or scattered across the catwalk, there was rarely a point at which every member of the band wasn’t represented to the folks even in the nosebleed seats.  While this was quite a visually intense experience, it seemed scaled back compared to previous U2 tours, which wasn't a bad thing.  The presentation of the show fit the music perfectly, especially the toned down version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and the softer moments in the show like “Every Breaking Wave” and their tribute to Nelson Mandela, “Ordinary Love.”

Having never seen U2 until tonight, it was hard to not be overcome with emotion when the band finally ripped into classics like the emotional “With or Without You” and the soaring grandiosity of “Bullet the Blue Sky.”  The latter was especially memorable for The Edge’s blistering guitar work — he performed the slide heavy song as if it was the band’s first time playing the tune.  The only time U2 touched on landmark album The Unforgettable Fire was to perform – you guessed it – “Pride (In the Name Of Love)” and although it would’ve been great to hear another song from this album, Larry Mullen, Jr.’s drum performance was just as passionate as Bono’s vocal delivery that it made me forget my minor griping. 

It begs mentioning that the band didn’t perform “New Year’s Day,” which was hardly the only setlist snafu that comes to mind, but it's the first to enter my brain as it is indeed my favorite U2 cut.  But this tour is hardly centered around U2’s setlist choices.  The best thing you can do is to drop any expectations at the door and immerse yourself into the spectacle that the guys in U2 conjure up for their audience every night.  Whether you’re a lifelong fan, a kinda-sorta follower who appreciates the radio hits, or even if you’re a U2 hater – you will leave their show feeling as if you just saw a monument to rock music.  And that’s precisely what their Innocence + Experience tour is — a testament not only to the staying power of rock'n'roll’s most impactful band, but also the artists and causes that have inspired them to make it this far.  U2 may very well be the biggest rock band in the world next to the Rolling Stones (who were apparently present for this evening’s festivities along with Chris Rock).  But unlike the Stones, U2 pushes themselves further and further out of their comfort zone with each album and tour and this current cycle finds the band breaking the mold once again.  If you have a chance to see the band on this tour, do yourself a favor and go — it’s sure to be one of the most exciting rock shows you’ll ever witness.

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