In his new book, titled Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock, music critic Steven Hyden talks about the slow but inevitable decline of rock ‘n’ roll as its been known for half a century. As rock stars like Prince, David Bowie, and Tom Petty pass away, and as artists like Elton John and Bob Seger decide to get off the road for good, the vestiges of rock ‘n’ roll—at least rock ‘n’ roll from the days when this music was at the cultural epicenter—are fading away. As Hyden notes in an early chapter, the classic rockers that are still on the road are largely either playing their greatest hits or doing celebratory anniversary tours where they play their classic albums in full. Even the classic rockers that are still making music with some regularity seem to accept that the people coming to their shows want to hear the old favorites.
These factors make it that much more incredible that the setlist for U2’s current tour features a whopping eight songs from the band’s latest album.
By all accounts, U2 are a classic rock band. Their old 1980s staples (“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Pride (In the Name of Love,” virtually anything from The Joshua Tree) crop up on classic rock radio on a pretty much hourly basis. They’ve been together since 1976 and they released their first album in 1980. Last year, they even hopped on the anniversary tour bandwagon, playing The Joshua Tree in full to mark the 30th anniversary of its 1987 release.
But U2 are not a typical classic rock band. More than 40 years after their inception, they are still playing with the original lineup. They haven’t been torn apart by petty squabbles or arguments over salary (*cough* Fleetwood Mac *cough*). By all accounts, Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen, Jr., and Adam Clayton are still good friends who work together as a unit, both on and off the road. Perhaps most importantly, they are all still alive.
I am also of the mind that U2 are still making vital music, though I know some people would disagree. Their last album, Songs of Experience, arrived in December and is my fourth favorite U2 record ever. An unflinching meditation on life, death, family, and the state of the world, Experience is the darkest U2 album since the 90s. It is, for my money, a record worthy of being dubbed a late-career masterpiece.
Still, even with the love I have for Songs of Experience, I didn’t expect the band to show the confidence in the new songs that they have on the road this spring. A few things about U2’s current tour—titled the eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE Tour—make it unique from virtually any other show ever performed by a band of U2’s age, stature, or legacy. At the most recent tour stop in Philadelphia, the band played 24 songs. Eight of the 13 Songs of Experience songs are in the mix, along with two from that album’s predecessor (2014’s Songs of Innocence) and two each from their early 2000s discs, All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. All told 14 of the 24 songs are culled from U2’s post-2000 era.
The big headline-grabbing fact about the tour, meanwhile, is that the setlist features zero songs from The Joshua Tree. It has for its duration, too. When the tour opened on May 2 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, some fans speculated that the Tree-less setlist was a statement rather than a trendsetter. Surely the band would bring those old hits back eventually. Perhaps U2 were just trying to prove that they could be U2 without the greatest hits. Now 18 shows into the tour, though, those songs have yet to make an appearance. Even when the band broke the template of this tour’s setlist for a June 11 stop at New York’s Apollo Theater, they still kept the “no Joshua Tree songs” rule alive.
On the one hand, it makes sense that U2 wanted to give those songs a break. The 30th anniversary tour for The Joshua Tree just wrapped up in October, and the band played all 11 songs from it, in order, for every night of the 51-date tour. I’d be tired of “Bullet the Blue Sky” too.
On the other hand, when you have songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You,” you don’t typically leave them in the chamber of the gun. “Streets,” in particular, is maybe the best song I have ever seen any band play live. The first time I heard it in a concert setting, on a June evening back in the summer of 2011, it was breathtaking. I was in the nosebleeds and that song still made an open air football stadium in Michigan feel like heaven. If you have a song like that, you don’t not play it. Except U2 are doing just that.
There are greatest hits in the eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE setlist. “Pride,” “I Will Follow,” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”—the only songs U2 have played more than “Where the Streets Have No Name,” according to Setlist.fm—all make appearances. So do post-millennial hits like “Beautiful Day,” “Vertigo,” and “Elevation.” And U2 couldn’t conscionably leave out both “Streets” and “One,” so the latter still gets its place of honor in the encore. Elsewhere, though, U2 are making some surprising choices, from dusting off a few deep cuts (“Acrobat,” an Achtung Baby track never played live before this tour) to letting “City of Blinding Lights,” a sky-scraping arena rocker from 2005, fill in for “Streets” as the main set closer.
Frankly, it’s kind of cool to see a legacy band bet so confidently on their new material. These days, the expectation for the “greatest hits” setlist has become so pronounced that it’s tough for artists to resist it. Even Springsteen, who couldn’t ever be accused of playing anything but the show that he wants to play, hasn’t really had a tour or setlist focused on new material since he started running through full albums at the end of the Working on a Dream tour. But then we have U2, playing the vast majority of their new album and leaving every track from their most beloved LP in the vault. As classic rock reaches its twilight period, U2 are refusing to go gently into that good night. Amidst the deaths, retirements, and farewell tours, it’s good to have at least one classic band acting like they’ve still got another 20 years left in the tank.