A see-through video wall that makes every seat in the arena a center stage one. The rewriting of the “Bullet the Blue Sky” monologue to focus on Bono’s hypocrisy. Animated versions of Bono’s childhood street and home videos and photos of his mother. And a visual leitmotif of a lightbulb, the lone stage lighting that the foursome needed while playing in small nightclubs in the late ’70s.
If the U2 of “Rattle and Hum” showed the Irish foursome absorbing American blues and ’90s U2 was a response to the sound of Berlin’s nightclubs, the current incarnation may be an attempt to co-opt the ultra-confessional world of modern independent music.
The “Innocence and Experience Tour” winds its way through Madison Square Garden for an eight-night stand starting Saturday, sees Bono and company struggling with the question that every long-running band faces: How can one make the old new again? How does one stay relevant in music, especially at a time when bands drift in and out of public consciousness faster than ever before?
In many ways, U2’s current run finds its inspiration in the hyper-personal moments of the indie, pop and rock stars that have spent the last 10 years moving from clubs to arenas. That a band of self-proclaimed outcasts and misfits like Arcade Fire could put together a worldwide tour playing venues like MSG or The Forum in Los Angeles would have been unthinkable when U2 was planning its first arena forays in the 1980s.
The latest album features some of Bono’s most explicitly-personal lyrics, singing about his mother on “Iris (Hold Me Closer)” and his childhood street on “Cedarwood Road.” In concert, those songs are mixed with images of Bono’s mother and an animated version of the singer as a kid. Thanks to the see-through video screen, the lead singer can appear to be walking down his childhood street, or stand in frame next to an image of his mother. It may be more on-the-nose than Win Butler’s conflicted feelings of childhood on Arcade Fire’s superlative-inducing “The Suburbs,” but the instinct is similar.
Best of all, it feels earned. This is the band that set out to save the world, after all. It’s the group of four Irishmen who, through its performances in New York in October of 2001 and again at halftime of that year’s Super Bowl, looked to heal a city in the aftermath of the Sept. 11th attacks. It’s a music act that still spends time during each concert talking about peace, curing AIDS and income inequality, no matter how cynical the crowd becomes about the speeches. Maybe the natural place to change the world is at home.
If you go: U2 is playing at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Sunday, July 22, 23, 26, 27, 30 & 31 at 8 p.m., 4 Penn Plaza, 212-465-6073, $35-$280, some shows sold out