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Jim DeRogatis

U2's Innocence + Experience tour reminds you why you used to love this band

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U2 has got its mojo back.

Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. As readers of this blog and listeners of Sound Opinions know, I was not a fan of the long-running Irish rockers’ 13th studio album Songs of Innocence, to say nothing of being highly dubious of its business transactions in recent years, from the partnership with monopolistic concert giant Live Nation to cramming its new music into all of our iTunes accounts.

I liked No Line on the Horizon (2009) quite a bit, but was left so cold by that stadium tour with its ridiculous “claw” stage set and many bouts of pompous preaching that I figured I was done for good with the band as a live entity—and this from a fan who’d caught every tour since War (1983) and who’d rank the Achtung Baby and Zooropa-era shows among the best concerts he’s ever seen.

Nevertheless, there I was for the opening of a five-night stand at the United Center on Wednesday. And damned if the four-song opening salvo — “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone”), “The Electric Co.,” “Vertigo,” and “I Will Follow” — didn’t convince me that U2 is as ferocious, focused, and no-nonsense committed as it’s ever been, while the four-song closing of the set proper — “Bullet the Blue Sky,” “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Beautiful Day,” and “With or Without You” — was enough to negate any accusation of bombast and make the hardest-hearted skeptic once again surrender to the majestic rattle and hum of yore.

“Bono dedicates ‘Elevation’ to the Blackhawks,” The Chicago Tribune’s wiseass cheeseburger bureau chief tweeted midway through the show. “@JimDeRogatis sitting next to me rolls his eyes so hard his head tipped backwards.”

True enough. But as I responded, that was because it was the only clichéd and pandering arena-rock moment of an otherwise stripped-down, gimmick-free 23-song set that didn’t need a shout-out to the local sports champs to prompt an easy cheer.

Talk about rolling my eyes: I did a lot more than that when I first started reading that the current show was planned with an eye toward theatrical storytelling, and that the high-tech video screens spanning the arena were inspired by some of what Bono and the Edge learned during their foray onto Broadway with Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.

But the thematic arc of “Iris (Hold Me Close),” “Cedarwood Road,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and “Raised by Wolves” worked without pretensions, especially since the new songs were much harder-hitting and far more emotional than in the bland, over-produced versions on record. And while the snapshots on the big screens of the Dublin streets where the musicians grew up weren’t really necessary, they weren’t obnoxious distractions, either.

Add to this the enduring groove of “Mysterious Ways,” always a reminder of why Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton are one of the best rhythm sections in rock; the several eruptions of pure-noise Edge guitar; powerfully minimalist acoustic readings of “Ordinary Love” and “Every Breaking Wave,” and Bono’s poignant evocation of the ongoing battles for the soul of America represented by Ferguson, Staten Island, and Charleston, and… well… this band has got its mojo back, and I can’t really say it any better than that.

(U2 performs at the United Center again tonight, Sunday, Monday, and Thursday, and some tickets remain for several of these shows.)

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