U2 has made a career out of building bridges, and brought a full construction kit to the Bell Centre on Friday for the first of four nights. There was the long-established link between performer and audience that this band holds sacred. There was the prominent span connecting the main stage and a smaller circular platform — an ingenious layout that stretched the full length of the arena and gave the optical illusion of shrinking the room despite the sellout crowd. Then there were the conceptual bridges between innocence and experience (bingo — we have a name for the tour), ragged glory and high-tech eye candy, wordless communion and sociopolitical sermons. It wouldn’t be U2 if there wasn’t some overreaching, but few bands that want it all manage to grasp so much. They’ve maintained an ear for walk-on music and an eye for memorable entrances. Patti Smith’s People Have the Power summarized the quartet’s ideals as concisely as any U2 song could (and with the show starting an hour after the advertised time, they could have brought Patti along to do a support set), fading out just as Bono made a stealth arrival at the back of the room. Gliding from the secondary stage down the catwalk, leading more than 21,000 voices in The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)’s wordless chant, he claimed to hear “the most beautiful sound in the world.” He wasn’t far off. When the full band kicked in, they brought the right hunger to The Miracle’s tale of musical awakening — a hunger that must be incredibly rare when you’ve been at the top of the mountain for decades. The years melted together as the lead cut from last year’s Songs of Innocence segued effortlessly into The Electric Co.’s post-punk convulsion, the Edge’s shock-treatment guitar as unnerving as ever. Bono introduced his cohorts as if this were an opening set by unknowns, and if you closed your eyes, his distressed cries could have come from 1980.
For a while, this looked like it would be the most unadorned production from U2 since they conquered the world with The Joshua Tree. Vertigo was mostly played under a single oversized lightbulb, sent swinging to the rafters with a hard push from Bono. Then Iris (Hold Me Close) — for Bono’s mother, and “pour toutes les mamans” — ushered in a sequence of songs tied to youth in Ireland, and triggered eye-popping projections above the catwalk.
Stretching the length of the bridge between stages, the screens masked another walkway. At times, the bunk-bed setup of paths and the city-block-size images contributed to U2’s most tightly interlocked marriage of sound and vision since the Zoo TV tour melted retinas with 570 channels. A toughened Cedarwood Road found Bono illuminated on the elevated catwalk, pacing against scrolling images of childhood delights and temptations as bassist Adam Clayton and the Edge patrolled below. Song for Someone’s sentimental streak was heightened by animation of Bono as an aspiring artist, playing guitar under posters of Kraftwerk and the Clash.
But the imaginative staging of Invisible — with glimpses of band members only caught through cracks in the graphics — kept everyone glued in place. Until the End of the World’s magic tricks were astonishing, as the Edge perched on a giant close-up of Bono’s hand, but these set pieces must have played poorly for anyone who wasn’t positioned along the length of the screens.
While Bono’s vocals were at perfect pitch throughout the night, the frontman grew roots in much of the first set. His performance was less insular in the second, especially once he brought a guest on stage for Mysterious Ways. Well, if you looked out at your audience and saw a man-mountain decked out in mirror-ball regalia, with a “U2BROTHR” licence plate dangling from his neck, you’d notice him too.
With the band already huddled together on the secondary stage, the new arrival made room by hoisting up Bono and cradling him like a baby mid-song, while the other three didn’t disrupt the slippery groove. If this was some performance-art script, the singer’s disbelieving grin didn’t betray it. Rather than send U2BROTHR back into the general-admission crowd on the floor, he was retained as a cameraman during a celebratory Elevation.
“All this technology … is so we can get closer to our people,” Bono declared. “There is no them — there is only us.” With the new crew hire’s handheld footage beamed onto the screens — and, in a priceless moment, Bono tapping him on the shoulder to request a closeup — this was U2 doing its greatest parlour trick: levelling the barriers between band and audience in an impersonal environment.
Every Breaking Wave enhanced that intimacy, with just Edge on piano and Bono at his most tender. In a masterful segue, the raindrop notes yielded to Bullet the Blue Sky’s thunderclap drums and political drama. As Bono barked “everyone has become an American” and prowled the catwalk with a star-spangled megaphone, one remembered just how unafraid of confrontation this band can be.
Pride’s ringing intro shot a lightning bolt up the spine, as did the “oh oh oh oh” refrain reflected back at Bono by a force of 21,000-plus. “A melody stronger than words,” he said, then offered a whole bunch of words in support of human-rights workers imprisoned in Kazakhstan. His speeches on this night were uncharacteristically studded with ums and ahs, but here he approached statesmanship.
That will serve him well when he meets with federal party leaders in Ottawa on Monday, a trip he trumpeted as he implored the audience to help end mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS. If Bono’s “am I bugging you?” sermons are still hard sells for some, it surely helps when the sales pitch is immediately followed by Where the Streets Have No Name. The churchly intro, the staccato propulsion, the genuine need for escape and genuine possibility of salvation — it remains an unbreakable song.
Unbeatable, too, so if you keep going after that, you may as well end on a note of uncertainty. A comparatively subdued finale of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was introduced as an answer to the question “why are we still here?” More eternally curious and ambitious than dissatisfied, U2 is still here for the right reasons, and hasn’t stopped making connections that elude any number of acts working on a much more human scale.