Live Review: U2 Divide and Conquer TD Garden

U2’s Larry Mullen Jr., the Edge and Bono make a splash at TD Garden.

Signs leading into U2’s current iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour weren’t promising. First there was the public blowback over the Irish supergroup’s 2014 album Songs of Innocence popping up in people’s iTunes accounts like a free but unsolicited serving of processed food. Then came frontman Bono’s slow recovery from a serious November bicycle spill that left him unable to play guitar, although guitarist the Edge fared better two months ago when he blindly stepped off a ramp into a security pit at the tour’s first stop in Vancouver.

So what a pleasant surprise that U2’s return to town showed the quartet revitalized — physically, musically and technologically – in Friday’s first of four shows at TD Garden. U2 proved once again that its charismatic connection with fans and its ability to revolutionize stage design remain unparalleled at the arena level. The thematically cohesive, two-and-a-half-hour concert provided both an intimate rebound from 2009’s overscaled 360° tour at Gillette Stadium and the band’s most satisfying program since the Elevation tour in 2001.

This was Boston, after all, a hotbed for U2 since the group opened a show at the Paradise Rock Club in 1980. “You weren’t all there,” Bono chided Friday’s soldout crowd, designating the Garden a “hometown show.” Not only did a person on the floor hoist a sign for rare oldie “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” but another sign called for “Snippet of Acrobat,” begging for even a piece of a never-performed tune.

U2 wasted no time in reaffirming its prowess. Bono confidently strode the runway up the center of the arena floor to launch “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” the Songs of Innocence opener coming off stronger live with fans joining its “Whoa!” chant before Bono sent a large hanging lightbulb swinging over the main stage as his bandmates kicked in. The whiplash jolt of “The Electric Co.” (from U2’s 1980 debut Boy, with the “Send in the Clowns” serenade that Bono once famously served in at the Orpheum Theatre after climbing into an upper box to fetch a fan’s white flag) and the 2004 raveup “Vertigo” made sure that U2 began with a career-bridging knockout. After those three punches, the singer hopped in place, adopting the stance of a cocky boxer.

That’s when U2 began to unveil the breadth of its staging. The group has always been a unifying force in concert, conveyed Friday in later sing-alongs as the anti-violence “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (the four members stretched along the ramp behind Larry Mullen Jr.’s marching drum to cry “We can be as one tonight!” over a reggae pulse) and “One,” when fans even carried the verses. So how novel for U2 to split the crowd with a massive two-sided LED wall that stretched over the floor-spanning walkway and contained an upper catwalk that let band members climb inside images flashed to separate sides of the arena.  The see-through wall still drew the focus of fans from either side, while speakers suspended from the arena ceiling better distributed the sound. In turn, there wasn’t really a bad seat in the house (at least on the lower level) to watch the ever-mobile band, though dead-center bowl seats negated the impact of the screens.

An early Songs of Innocence sequence that tracked the band growing up in Dublin provided the first wow when Bono virtually walked down an animated street in “Cedarwood Road” (even disappearing behind opaque cars), while an animated version of the younger rocker wandered out of a bedroom sporting posters of the Clash and Kraftwerk during “Song for Someone.” His bandmates’ cyclical shuffle, however, paled next to later nugget “Bad,” where Bono rode a similar rhythmic motif to an emotive, full-throated climax.

Perhaps the coolest effect came in the apocalyptic “Until the End of the World.” The Edge soloed inside the screens while Bono precisely positioned himself in front of a camera on the satellite stage to project his giant image spitting a stream of water on his lilliputian guitar foil, even holding him in his palm. Amusingly, for all the technology, when Bono handed a presumed iPhone to a woman from the crowd to live-stream a stripped-down yet rousing “Elevation” on the second stage via a Meerkat app, reception cut out to audio only. So much for that.

U2 loves to contrast conflict and redemption in its music and kept toggling that tension in concert. Bono held his microphone stand like a spear opposite the Edge’s scorching slide solo in “Bullet the Blue Sky” before he strode the ramp with a megaphone to gasp, “I’m an American. I can’t breathe.” That segued into the MLK tribute “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which Bono dubbed “A song for the peacemakers” as he rattled off the names of recent racial hotspots Baltimore, Ferguson and Charleston, then recognized Boston Marathon bombing survivors.

The frontman wandered a bit in a spiel to touch on activist causes that U2 has supported, including Amnesty International and the (RED) campaign to wipe out AIDS (with a shoutout to supporter Tom Brady before a snippet of Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion”), but this remained one triumphant night.

“Thanks for standing by us,” Bono said. And Friday’s concert ended like many classic U2 shows, with the Edge and bassist Adam Clayton switching their instruments for “40,” a hymn-like lullaby dedicated to U2’s recently deceased tour manager Dennis Sheehan, the crowd chanting “How long to sing this song” as the band members waved goodbye one by one. As usual, Mullen extended the beat and departed last. But as he exited the runway, the drummer stopped to accept a flower from a fan to his right and hand it to another on his left, bringing those ingenuously split sides together with a symbolic final gesture.

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