The iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour found U2 operating on a level few popular artists could even begin to aspire to Friday night at US Airways Center, where the sold-out crowd was treated to an elaborate pop-art spectacle that managed to push the theatrical boundaries of a rock show while advancing a social agenda or two with a sense of purpose and conviction.
It played to the back rows (and beyond) as much as any U2 concert. But for every bell and whistle, every grand attempt at making sure you understood that Bono still has something more important to convey than "Hello, Phoenix," Friday's concert also found them operating on a very human scale, letting their hair down in moments that thrived on spontaneity and self-effacing humor.
The look on Bono's face, as played out on a giant screen, when he sat at an upright piano and realized the part he was playing was horribly wrong was priceless. As was his reaction to the overly enthusiastic fan he brought on stage to strum along on acoustic guitar to "In God's Country."
"Ritalin is also good," Bono told him.
he staging spanned the length of US Airways Center, with a large rectangular i-shaped stage at one end of the venue, a smaller e-shaped stage at the other and a catwalk connecting the two, with a massive rectangular video cage suspended from the ceiling. A separate catwalk inside the cage allowed the members of U2 to immerse themselves in imaginative video projections — a visually stunning effect allowing Bono to walk the animated streets of his youth on "Iris (Hold Me Close)," a heartfelt tribute to his mother.
The screen was also used to powerful effect on an impassioned "Sunday Bloody Sunday," during which the faces of the victims of the Bloody Sunday incident in Northern Ireland were projected on the sides of animated houses as Bono poured his heart out on a chorus hook that sadly felt as relevant as ever: "How long must we sing this song?"
And that wasn't the only overtly political moment of the show. During "Pride (in the Name of Love)," a heartfelt tribute to the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bono said, "This is the moment where we get to talk about peace as an action" as part of a monologue that talked about "the courage to compromise in Ireland" before drawing a parallel between the violence there and the more recent strife in Baltimore and Ferguson.
Setting the tone for their performance with the Patti Smith song "People Have the Power" blaring on the PA, U2 took the stage and launched into a track from last year's "Songs of Innocence" whose title references another CBGB legend, "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)." A tribute to that life-affirming moment when you hear "a song that made some sense out of the world," it proved a brilliant introduction to a performance that clearly had making some sense of the world on its list of things to do.
They weren't shy about delving into "Songs of Innocence," playing six of the 11 tracks. But by the second song, they were blowing the dust off their first album, "Boy," with the post-punk urgency of "The Electric Co.," the Edge's guitar mixed gloriously high and Bono, an energetic presence in excellent voice throughout the night, inserting a snippet of "Send in the Clowns."
"Anyone speak Spanish around here?" Bono asked coming out of that one. "'Cause clearly I don't." And with that, he counted off a raucous "Vertigo," swatting the lightbulb that hung from the ceiling just over his head. The rock vibe carried over into "I Will Follow," during which the singer brought an eight-year-old on stage and sang the lyrics at him as his bandmates brought the music to a climax.
The night's first monologue found Bono joking about the way Americans had ruined the word awesome. But "as overused as it is," he said, "it applies" to the "miracle of a landscape that is Arizona." He then informed us that over the course of the next few songs, they were going to try to transport us to where they'd grown up. This set up the show's most visually arresting suite, as "Iris (Take Me Home)" gave way to "Cedarwood Road" and "Song for Someone," all from "Songs of Innocence."
The pacing and staging were flawless as they made their way from there through such obvious highlights as "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Even Better Than the Real Thing," "Beautiful Day," "Bad" and a majestic, set-closing "With Or Without You."
Bono brought three sisters on stage to dance along to "Mysterious Ways" and "Desire" and had one of them live-stream the action on her cellphone, which was great fun. And they stripped things down to beautiful effect with the Edge on piano as Bono delivered a gorgeous, soulful "Every Breaking Wave" on the little e-shaped stage before the rhythm section — the ever-stylish Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. — kicked into the concert's most electrifying rocker, "Bullet the Blue Sky." Bono changed the words on that one to "Jazz man breathes into a saxophone while everyone stares into their cell phone," one of several playful touches that offset the moments that bordered on overly serious.
The encore began with a piped-in speech by Stephen Hawking about how "we must become global citizens" and live together "with tolerance and respect," effectively setting the stage for a powerful "City of Blinding Lights." Then, after a speech about conquering AIDS, Bono delivered a moving rendition of Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion," slowing it down for dramatic effect, before bringing the night to a triumphant close with two songs from "The Joshua Tree," "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
It was everything a U2 fan could possibly have hoped for in 2015 and a testament to how much more these veteran rockers have to offer 35 years after "Boy" first suggested a promising future.