BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
[I’m on with my rock ‘n’ roll pal Kaedy Kiely at 97.1 The River every Wednesday at 4:50 p.m. to talk about the latest music news. Tune in to hear what’s up!]
If you recall the last time U2 played Atlanta – Georgia Dome, 2009 – you remember the grandiosity of their “360” tour.
The city has waited nearly a decade for the band to return, and the reward for this U2 deprivation was a two-hour-plus zinger of a concert at the most intimate venue that could also hold the quartet’s eye-popping stage setup, the Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth.
The 100-foot-long catwalk shrouded by a “barricage” projecting high-resolution images connected the end stage – clean and open-backed – to the small, circular “E” stage at the opposite end of the arena.
The Irish superstars – aka Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. - marched back and forth on the rising catwalk, performed “The Blackout” as shadows behind the screen and, a dozen songs into the set, unwrapped the most sweaty, fiery segment of the show while crammed together on that circle (“Elevation,” “Vertigo” and “Desire”).
The setup is an artistic marvel, and even though a version of the screen was used on 2015’s “Innocence + Experience” tour (not to be confused with this one, “Experience + Innocence”), it’s been enhanced for greater clarity.
Few artists can get away with opening a concert with a trio of new songs (“Love is All We Have Left,” “The Blackout,” “Lights of Home”). But when you’re a band with still so much to say, it’s not only OK, but welcomed.
But, it was the Edge’s opening chime of a guitar riff for “I Will Follow” that sent a surge through the packed, sold-out venue Monday night. Bono introduced the song as if they were a new band from Dublin and U2 somehow still played it with the same verve and punch as they did decades ago.
Although the show was bookended with material from the current “Songs of Experience” album – U2’s strongest since 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” – the band adroitly seesawed with thematic pockets of old and new.
Bono shoehorned a shout-out to R.E.M.’s Mike Mills – who was spotted in the crowd – during the eternally inspirational “Beautiful Day” (later, during a face-melting “Vertigo,” Bono tossed in a snippet of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It [And I Feel Fine],” for an added dose of R.E.M. love) before shifting tone and paying tribute to his mother and his upbringing with “Iris (Hold Me Close”) and “Cedarwood Road” as he walked the catwalk to an animated rush of images from his childhood home.
Through it all, Mullen’s crisp workout on the high hat and snare drum, Edge’s skyrocketing guitar riffs and Clayton’s unwavering bass lines were steadfast accompaniments to Bono’s robust voice, which still soars with passion and escalates to reach notes you know he’ll hit (and he does…every time).
Much of U2’s story has been shaped by politics, and the band concentrated on communicating messages of peace. A subdued version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” with Mullen holding the audience rapt by stoically smacking his marching band snare drum on the catwalk, was imbued with messages such as “End Internment” and “Remember the Victims" on the screen.
Bono’s devilish “MacPhisto” also made a return – with red horns and jagged teeth superimposed on his pasty-white face – to sneer the lyrics of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” before the band kicked into the “Achtung Baby” deep cut, “Acrobat.”
“When you don’t believe I exist, that’s when I do my best work,” ‘MacPhisto” reminded.
As Bono and the Edge stood alone on the back stage for a stirring acoustic version of “Staring at the Sun” – an appreciated reference to the unfairly maligned 1997 “Pop” album – footage of white supremacists in Charlottesville blanketed the screens.
The video continued to roll as the Edge defiantly broke into the sunburst opening of “Pride (In the Name of Love”), which resonated even more deeply given the Atlanta roots of Martin Luther King Jr.
“I think of the Reverend, down the road, who 50 years ago gave his life up so we might (realize) his dream,” Bono said as the Edge and Clayton stood on small platforms amid the crowd, locked into their respective grooves as the galvanizing anthem rang through the arena.
The foursome returned to the main stage for a closing, pre-encore pack of songs that included the rousing new “Get Out of Your Own Way” and fuzz-drenched, Kendrick Lamar-cameoing “American Soul.”
“We thank you for letting us in… into your hearts, into your country,” Bono said, with a giant American flag unfurled behind him.
And while “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own” would have been a tender inclusion from 2004’s “How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,” the album’s other gem (aside from “Vertigo”), the melodically lush “City of Blinding Lights,” was more than a suitable consolation as the show headed into its final stretch.
In Vertigo,” Bono so powerfully cries, “You give me something I can feel.” On this night, the audience could relate.