U2 Brings Out the Sun Ra Arkestra, Pays Tribute to Anthony Bourdain at Legendary Apollo Theater

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Bono of U2 performs during SiriusXM's private concert with U2 at The Apollo Theater on June 11, 2018 in New York City. 

From grocery store discounts to regrettable recuts of the original Star Wars trilogy, the word "special" has been robbed of much of its meaning over the years. But that simple, straightforward term for something singular and wonderful beyond expectations is perhaps the best word to describe U2's Monday (June 11) night concert at the incomparable Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Maybe it was the star-studded guest list (Jon Bon Jovi, Harry Belafonte, Lupita Nyong'o, Gina Gershon, Darren Aronofsky, Dierks Bentley, Andy Cohen and more); or the fact that the iconic venue removed rows of seats to permit front-of-house standing room; or the surprise appearance of the Sun Ra Arkestra, the continuing troupe started by the late avant jazz pioneer; or perhaps it was just the eye-popping reality of watching one of the world's biggest rock bands perform its iconic catalog mere feet in front of you.

Whatever the reason, when the Irish rockers wrapped their nearly 20-song U2 Live At The Apollo For SiriusXM, set, the audience left the Apollo in a stunned, breathless stupor, grasping at words to describe how remarkable this exclusive event (it was invitation-only for SiriusXM subscribers) felt.

While the band has seemingly retired Joshua Tree tunes from its setlist after their 30-year anniversary tour behind the genre-pushing blockbuster, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. certainly have plenty of chart hits and fan favorites in their arsenal to please a crowd. Weaving in fragments of classics by the Police, the Stooges and the Who into its own material on Monday night, U2 displayed an enviable knack for making their hyper-earnest material sound emotionally honest, even after playing those songs live for the thousandth time. But of the newer material, a few of those are starting to sound like genuine GOAT U2 classics. Following beloved anthems like "Beautiful Day" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)," Songs of Experience's "Get Out of Your Own Way" came across every bit the in-concert equal of those classics, making the case that even if top 40 radio has moved past U2, U2 hasn't relented from delivering pointed, poignant rockers for their devoted fanbase. 

For the first encore, a curtain behind the band pulled back to reveal the Sun Ra Arkestra; with their horns at the ready and shimmering sequins drenching their cosmic couture, the Arkestra continues to spread Sun Ra's loopy avant-garde jazz throughout the known universe a full 25 years after his passing. They joined U2 on "Angel of Harlem" (you know Bono couldn't let a show at the Apollo pass without playing that one), "Desire," "When Love Comes to Town" and "Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of."

That last song, originally dedicated to late INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, took on additional levity in the wake of the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, which Bono nodded to prior to playing the song, noting that "we lost a lot of inspiring, useful people and gained a few useless people" in recent years. "And now this great storyteller, who I'm sure has stories he couldn't tell us. So for Anthony Bourdain, and his friends and family, this is a song inspired by a great friend of ours. His name is Michael Hutchence."

Throughout the evening, Bono kept referring to the night as a "punk rock" show. And while most fans and critics probably wouldn't use the p word in reference to a band as successful, technically proficient and emotionally earnest as U2, there is an unshakable authenticity to the band, especially now as it eyes the next phase of its career. Yes, sometimes being authentically U2 has meant embracing artifice; sometimes that's meant being the biggest band in the world with the most irresistible, anthemic choruses. But throughout it all, you get the sense that the band never lost its fervor for the liberating power of rock, soul and punk. You'd be rightly laughed at for calling them scrappy Irish punks in 2018, but when they take the stage and start feeding off the crowd's energy, you still get the sense that you're watching four people inspired by Elvis' voice and the Clash's sonic attack to start a band and try to change the world. That might not be punk in the truest sense of the word, but at the Apollo on Monday night, it was apparent that like William Blake's immortal Songs of Experience tiger, they're still burning bright.