SAN JOSE, Calif. — A U2 show comes with heightened expectations and an almost euphoric anticipation for a cultural touchstone. It's an impossibly high bar to meet.
For more than two hours last night, the seminal Irish rock band did just that.
A blistering start and finish book-ended a tech-tinged show that is bombastic, brilliantly absurd arena rock.
U2 kicked off its U.S. leg of the Innocence & Experience tour under vexing circumstances: a physically damaged lead singer and a record, Songs of Innocence, that sparked a backlash after it was distributed for free to 500 million people via iTunes in September. (U2 is working on a new album, Songs of Experience.)
From those setbacks, the venerable band saw the opportunity to turn uncertainty into a platform to redefine its place in rock 'n' roll's pantheon.
That it did, Monday night at SAP Center here. An invigorated band tore through anthems and new stuff under a reconstituted sight-and-sound show. Enormous speakers from the ceiling spread out sound more evenly in the arena. Dazzling screens split the room in half. At times, it was a case of seeing is disbelieving.
A Magneto-sized digital image of Bono reaches out to corral Edge performing inside a cage suspended from the ceiling. The lead singer walks the streets of his childhoodDublin, in the rain, suspended above the crowd. An oblong box overhead depicted the band performing inside giant projections and animated sets, ornamented with dazzling lights, spinning glitter balls and LED videos.
A spry Bono showed no ill effects from a bicycle accident in Central Park in November that resulted in damage to his eye socket, shoulder, elbow and left hand. His voice is still commanding and emotive.
"Welcome to the first night of our U.S. adventure," Bono said after a four-song blitz to open things: The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone), Out of Control, Vertigo and I Will Follow.
The concert was divided into two parts: the first covered U2's youth yet drew heavily on its latest album, Songs of Innocence. A blizzard of confetti and technological stagecraft ended the 50-minute set. "We aren't afraid of technology — we rather like it," said Bono.
The concert's second half was larded with the classic anthems: An inspired Pride (In the Name of Love), a soaring Angel of Harlem. Mysterious Ways was especially infectious. U2 paid tribute to the late, great B.B. King with When Love Comes to Town, its successful collaboration with the blues legend.
Four stages covering much of the arena floor afforded fans to be near Bono, guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. at any given time.
The fifth "member" of U2 was the oblong-shaped LED screen that greatly assisted the first half of the show, offering stunning visuals to enliven newer material that the capacity crowd was unfamiliar with or — in some cases — indifferent.
But there were slices of heart and humanity. A lovely new ballad, Every Breaking Wave, showed off Bono's incomparable voice. The rousing Where the Street Has No Name punctuated the encore.
When U2 last visited the San Francisco Bay Area, in 2011, it was at cavernous Oakland Stadium during the 360° Tour. Monday's U.S. opener was far smaller, more intimate and yet just as jaw-dropping in its staging and inventiveness.
The live staples of a U2 show were still there, in their soul-lifting glory, along with eye-popping pyrotechnics and some Bono preaching.
After 40 years together, U2 reached that impossibly high bar. Again.