“Thanks for letting us in,” Bono told the crowd at U2’s first of two sold-out nights at TD Garden on Thursday. He could have meant his band or the Irish in general who came to America — and Boston fans let U2 into their hearts from the start.
But Bono was on a roll against sexism and immigration policy. “Dream big enough to fit each and every one of us,” the singer said during “Pride (in the Name of Love),” the quartet’s tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and the emotional high point of Thursday’s show. “Dream for south of the border, trapped at the border… Jesus said ‘Suffer the little children, to come unto me, not to make the little children suffer.”
The song launched with footage of civil-rights marches on the massive double-sided video wall that split the arena between the main stage and the satellite platform where Bono was proselytizing. As Larry Mullen Jr. returned to his main-stage drum kit and guitarist the Edge and bassist Adam Clayton mounted pedestals to each side of the floor, band members formed a diamond against the rough while the crowd sang along.
Longtime pioneers of stage design that bridges the gap with fans, U2 faced a different challenge this tour, balancing technology-boosted tunes from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience – new albums that didn’t crack popular consciousness – with anthemic old favorites. All while avoiding live warhorses like “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “When the Streets Have No Name” (or anything else from 1987’s The Joshua Tree, which the band played in full last summer) and “Mysterious Ways.”
Granted, there was some welcome recycling from past tours, like a stripped-down early tandem of “I Will Follow” and “Gloria” (sounding as echoey as the Edge’s guitar in an unclear mix from speakers near the central rafters), a catwalk breakdown of Irish violence lament “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and a pair of tracks from 2014’s iTunes-dropped Songs of Innocence that traced Bono’s childhood with overlay video trickery. He appeared to almost touch his late mother’s shoulder in “Iris (Hold Me Close”) and strolled his hometown neighborhood from within the catwalk during “Cedarwood Road.” And for “Until the End of the World,” a giant Bono was transposed onto the screen to virtually hold the real Edge in his hand and spit water over the soloing guitarist.
On the other hand, U2 made a few fresh moves. Moody oldie “The Ocean” floated into those thoughts of childhood. The Edge strummed a maelstrom guitar solo in “Acrobat,” a track from 1991’s Achtung Baby never played before this tour and preceded by cameo from MacPhisto, Bono’s devilish alter-ego from that era, thanks to Snapchat-like manipulation of the singer’s face writ large on screen. Acoustic versions of “You’re the Best Thing About Me” (in contrast to polished choruses on Songs of Experience) and an Edge/Bono duet of ’90s Pop rarity “Staring at the Sun” also provided a change of sonic pace.
By that point of the two-hour-plus concert, however, the energy level in the crowd began to sag. After B-stage jolts “Elevation,” “Vertigo” and “Desire” (where awkward footage of Nazis and the KKK at least provided a setup for the mighty resistance of “Pride”), the newer songs “American Soul” (with Bono and his bullhorn backed by a huge American flag) and “City of Blinding Lights” didn’t quite cut it as set-closers on the main stage. Neither did Bono’s encore recitation of Paul Muldoon’s “Hedgehog” poem as part of an extended lead-up to “One.”
But the show and its recurring themes of innocence and experience beautifully came full circle in final song “13 (There is a Light).” The singer walked the runway to a model of his boyhood home, lifted its roof, and set free a luminous bulb that rose toward the rafters as Bono sang “There is a light, don’t let it go out.”