No one goes to see U2 hoping for subtlety.
The Dublin rock gods have always embraced the spectacle of arenas. Their past tours have incorporated screens, moving parts, and all manner of aesthetic pyrotechnics. Seeing Bono and company in the cradle of Silicon Valley is thus especially fitting — no doubt some of the wizards who create the band’s mechanical marvels make their homes in the neighborhood.
For the band’s latest exploit — dubbed the “Experience + Innocence Tour” — a rectangular multi-sided screen with a catwalk ran the length of SAP Center. At one point, it provided Bono a chance to walk against traffic as illustrated rain and cars barged past him (“Cedarwood Road”), while at other times all of U2 was revealed behind it amidst lightning flashes of their larger-than-life silhouettes. Toward the end of the show, the entirety of this mighty apparatus was filled with images of the alt-right activists who carried torches through Charlottesville last August.
Abrasive imagery at rock shows is nothing new; Morrissey has famously used truly nightmarish footage of meat processing plants during his concerts for years. But being confronted with a miasma of swastikas while trying to enjoy an acoustic take on “Staring at the Sun” was immensely uncomfortable. U2 has always infused elements of the political and calls for peaceful activism into their shows, but at a time when such garish imagery is already painfully prevalent in the television, social media, and news articles we consume, was such a blunt and dark reminder really necessary?
In fact, Bono’s ghoulish antics actually reached their apex earlier in the evening when the band convened at a small circular stage at the opposite end of the arena. Sporting a top hat and some seriously creepy white face makeup, Bono inhabited the persona of a demented carnival barker. To really hammer the point home, he gave an indecipherable monologue into a nearby iPad rigged to apply a devil’s face over his own that was then simulcast onto the main screens.
The intent behind this brief detour from the setlist remains unclear, but one can only guess Bono was offering a parable to serve as a segue into “Desire.” While it appears that escape from the life lessons U2 is intent on teaching its crowds is futile, the audience in San Jose seemed happy to endure if it meant they’d eventually be rewarded with favorites like “Vertigo” and “Elevation.”
During those numbers, there was simply no denying the band’s incarnate rockstar charisma. From Bono’s abrasive jerks of the microphone stand to The Edge stomping his feet in time with drummer Larry Mullen Jr., no act is better suited to deliver high-octane anthems. While much of the set drew on U2’s newer work, other setlist staples like “Beautiful Day” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” served as highlights and clear moments of recognition for fans who may not be up-to-date with the band’s discography but will still see them every chance they get.
For most groups, stunts like pulling a literal light bulb from a dollhouse while singing, “If there is a light / We can’t always see” during “13 (There Is a Light)” and having the surface of the sun projected onto the stage during “Staring at the Sun” might feel a bit too on the nose. However, in the case of U2, these flourishes speak to the band’s unwavering sincerity. Bono and company don’t simply wear their hearts on their sleeves when they take the stage—they parade them on pikes of tear-drenched choruses and the shimmering gleam of reverb.
So while being forced to once more witness the hideous conduct of ignorant humans that occurred in Charlottesville may on the surface have seemed like a cheap way to elicit emotion, it stands to reason that U2’s intentions were genuine. In this sense, a U2 concert may in fact be a test of one’s ability to stop being jaded and start being real. To walk away rolling your eyes is to have expected something from U2 that was never going to happen.
The truth is that Bono will never relinquish a chance to preach if he has a microphone and captive ears. The band will never abandon their new material to simply “shut up and play the hits.” U2 has earned the right to deliver a concert experience tailor-made to their ideals — they’re well past the point of catering to naysayers. It’s this confidence that has made their live shows such a highly-touted spectacle for decades.
On Monday night, the crowd at SAP Center was happy to turn themselves over the Irish quartet. There was awkward dancing and clasped hands. There were full bladders ignored lest the opening notes of a favorite song were soon to come. There was actual, palpable sincerity. If it felt uncomfortable, maybe that’s what U2 is trying to prove.