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eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE: behind the scenes of U2’s latest global smash

Since envisioning the concept for their eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE two-part arena tour in 2013, U2 and their team have had a tumultuous few years.

During that time, the band’s long-time tour manager Dennis Sheehan and stage architect Mark Fisher have both sadly passed away, and Bono had a near-death experience himself after a bike accident in New York resulted in a five-hour operation. He was back in hospital last year for another bout of surgery (the details of which the frontman has been reticent to talk about publicly).

During that time, U2 have toured the first iNNOCENCE part of their two-album series, celebrated 30 years of seminal ’87 release The Joshua Tree with a 51-date stadium run, and have just wrapped up the eXPERIENCE sequel. It’s an apt ending – the narrative of the most recent shows is themed around the complexity of life as an adult and the final journey towards the bright light.

eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE is in support of U2’s 2017 US and UK No1 album, Songs of Experience, which followed 2014’s Songs of Innocence. It has spanned 26 sold-out arena dates in North America that started in May, while the European leg ends with a rescheduled show in Berlin on 13 November. Described as their most technically complex shows to date, the tour features augmented reality, an innovative sound set-up, a revolutionary light-follow spot system and bespoke, transparent, 100-foot-long LED screens that surround a moving catwalk.

While iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE told the story of the band’s upbringing in Ireland, eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE documents their journey out into the world, facing death, and ties in a political element that centres on the death of democracy.

The narrative of the most recent shows is themed around the complexity of life as an adult and the final journey towards the bright light

The show “is more of a story, really; a very personal story,” Bono explained during one of their three Madison Square Garden gigs. “A boy tries to hold on to his innocence, fails, only to discover at the far end of experience some wisdom and some good company.”

And the concept has obviously caught the imagination: by the end of its European run, more than 924,000 people will have seen the show across 60 dates. That’s a little short of the 1,220,000 who bought tickets for 2015’s iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE outing, although that tour included 76 dates.

Creative direction
The plot started taking shape during a weekend in the south of France, where the band and their creative team found inspiration in shared history across a 40-year-plus career that started in high school in Dublin. Creative director Willie Williams explains: “The two stories it came down to wanting to tell were what it’s like for anybody growing up, where you feel like your bedroom is the whole world. It’s the story of how you escape from that bedroom and your house where you’re looking out the window at the world outside, trying to make sense of what’s going on. Journey two is being a grown-up in the outside world, the things that you have to face and what it takes to deal with all of that.”

The 2015 tour told the first part of the story, and the brief for the latest run was to finish it off. Williams adds: “It’s funny because at the beginning we thought it would be something to do with coming home, finding your new family or deciding where you settle ultimately. Because of some of the things that Bono went through, we realised that one way of looking at this journey home is basically death… which sounds pretty bleak!”

The European shows open with footage of cities the tour visits, shot between 1935 and 1945 whilst they were in ruins during WW2. “We wanted to make the point that because we’ve grown up in Europe and we’ve never seen war, we just assume that this is the way it’s always been. The start of the show is a reminder that we can’t take these things for granted,” says Williams. The footage also includes the MRI scans that Bono had after coming off his bike to combine the “personal and political cataclysm.”

“Because of some of the things that Bono went through, we realised that one way of looking at this journey home is basically death…”

From there starts ‘Lights of Home’ – a song that encapsulates the tour’s theme – followed by a reprise from the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE leg about growing up in Dublin. An intermission includes a graphic novel of the four band members and their journey together, followed by songs from their back catalogue, including the live debut of ‘Acrobat’ from Achtung Baby.

Bono then brings back his devil alter-ego, Mr MacPhisto, for an address to camera that’s politically themed for each city. A personal arc follows, before the refugee crisis is brought to the fore as part of ‘Summer of Love’, ending with an optimistic look at the future of Europe as born-again cities with ‘Pride’ and ‘City of Blinding Lights’.

In the US, the show opens on a personal theme with the idea of facing your own mortality using augmented reality. A series of still images play across the cinema-sized LED screen, which transform into a giant avatar version of Bono when audience members look through a custom-made app on their smartphones. The stage, which was designed by Es Devlin and Ric Lipson, appears as a giant iceberg that melts over the audience, preluding the cataclysm theme, which is enacted as a tsunami in the middle of the set with waves appearing across the screen while U2 sing ‘the End of the World’.

Naturally, the political element of the US shows centres on the reign of Donald Trump. The show ends with Bono walking towards a 3D doll-size model of the house he grew up in. He lifts the lid to find a light bulb, which appeared at the beginning of the iNNOCENCE shows, before quietly walking off stage.


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