U2 Brings Experience + Innocence to New York's Madison Square Garden

Paul Morigi/Getty Images

(L to R) The Edge, Larry Mullen, Jr. and Bono of U2 perform during the eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE TOUR at the Capital One Arena on June 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. 

As U2 pulled into New York City on Monday night (June 25) to begin a two-night stand at Madison Square Garden, Bono was still thinking of a recent stop in Washington, D.C. The outspoken frontman riffed on divisions in America’s capital while playing his MacPhisto character, the hatted and horned Evil Jagger who’s unleashed midway through U2’s amazing new Experience + Innocence Tour. 

“It’s so nice to see you all fighting amongst yourselves,” Bono told the sold-out MSG crowd, flashing demonic teeth made possible by an Instagram-style video filter and reciting his lines like a theme-park Batman villain. “Whatever happens, don’t mention the C-word: compromise."

Bono probably gives a similar MacPhisto rap at every show on this tour. But on Monday night, with outrage over the treatment of immigrant families at the U.S. border pushing Democrats and Republicans further apart, his words felt especially pointed. It was one of several topical flashes in a show that otherwise uses politics as part of a smaller, more personal story.

Early in Monday’s performance, while beanie-clad guitar god The Edge picked out the mournful chords of the 1980 deep cut “The Ocean,” Bono offered a synopsis of the show his band was about to present. In the singer’s words, the Experience + Innocence Tour is about “a boy who tries and fails to hold onto his innocence,” then rediscovers it later in life. That boy, of course, is Bono himself, but it’s also The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. And it’s the thousands of people who come to see U2 night after night and strap themselves into this one-time Dublin punk group’s latest rock ‘n’ roll thrill ride.

In many ways, Experience + Innocence is a continuation of the Innocence + Experience Tour of 2014-15. The group uses the same general layout: a big stage on one side, a small one on the other, and a long strip connecting the two. Super-high-res video screens are suspended on both sides of a giant cage extending the length of the runway, effectively cutting the room in half. At various times, U2 performs from a catwalk inside the cage, like on “The Blackout,” the dance-rock thumper that got Monday’s show rolling after the low-key intro “Love Is All We Have Left.”

The biggest change on the Experience + Innocence Tour isn’t any technological addition but rather a musical subtraction. Given that U2 spent much of last year revisiting their 1987 landmark The Joshua Tree in stadiums around the world, they’ve completely cut all songs from that album. That means no “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “With or Without You,” or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” U2 actually seems freer without them, leaning heavily on material from their two most recent LPs, 2014’s Songs of Innocence and 2017’s Songs of Experience.

Even with Joshua Tree chopped away, U2 leave room for some classics. They strip “Sunday Bloody Sunday” down to its barest elements, with martial snare drum, rumbling bass, and spiny guitar serving to highlight lyrics about The Troubles, the ethno-nationalist conflict that plagued Ireland for 30 years beginning in 1968. During Monday’s show, as the four members of U2 fanned out over the runway to play the song, all eyes drifted up to the video screens, where cartoon drawings of working-class Irish houses flashed Troubles-era slogans like “No Surrender” and “Prepared for Peace, Ready for War.”

Where those video screens really justify the electricity bill, though, is the transition from 1997’s “Staring at the Sun” to 1984’s “Pride (In the Name of Love).” During the former — a psychedelic folk song about “willful blindness” presented with just acoustic guitar and vocals — we see white nationalists throwing Nazi salutes and carrying tiki torches. The latter is a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., who’s pictured leading peaceful protests as U2 reach for the rafters with their most mega non-Joshua anthem.

Down the stretch, U2 make a good case for why the soaring “Get Out of Your Own Way” and fiery fuzzball “American Soul,” both from Songs of Experience, deserve placement in future tours. “City of Blinding Lights,” from 2004’s largely forgotten How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, brought Monday’s regular set to a close with enough twinkling grandeur to again fill any Joshua Tree void. That led to an encore where the always-moving “One” gave way to two more new songs that blossom live: “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” and “13 (There Is a Light).”

That’s the end of the story, though as the lights went up Monday night, fans exiting the Garden were treated to “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” a 1983 classic by Talking Heads, who Bono praised during a part in the concert where he listed off NYC’s musical heroes. (Lady Gaga also got a shout). With its childlike tune and mature, pragmatic portrait of love, “Naive Melody” made a nice postscript to a story U2 have worked 40 years to be able to tell.