U2’s last time passing through these parts was a gimme, hitting Gillette last summer to play through “The Joshua Tree” — its best-selling and arguably most definitive album — on the occasion of its 30th anniversary. On Thursday, the first of two sold-out nights at TD Garden, the band had to work for it, with their focus on a new album (“Songs of Experience”) that many fans received automatically for purchasing tickets to the tour. Combined with the material from the notoriously iTunes-gifted “Songs of Innocence,” nearly half of the setlist was devoted to albums that many people never even asked to get.
But for songs that were essentially given away, U2 sold them nonetheless. After defiant hymn “Love Is All We Have Left” opened with Bono alone on a movable catwalk, “The Blackout” provided a visceral impact that jump-started the concert, with flashes of the band members behind a translucent video screen that spanned nearly the length of the Garden. The Edge’s nervous guitar chops in “Iris (Hold Me Close)” echoed U2’s mid-period peak, and the frictionless skim of “Get Out of Your Own Way” was a baby brother to “Beautiful Day.” It segued directly into the snaky pound of the grunting and corrosive “American Soul,” which had a massive energy entirely its own.
Other songs drafted off of the show’s visuals. Seen through the screen, Bono walked along the catwalk down an animated street and then through a windstorm and deluge during the dirty sneer and grind of “Cedarwood Road,” and his gigantic image toyed with the Edge during “Until the End of the World,” spewing water on the guitarist and holding him in his hand. (A hyped augmented-reality app layered rolling waves and a 3-D hologram of Bono singing before announcing one song in that it would be shutting off for the duration of the show; for all of its eye-popping wow factor, apparently the band didn’t want its audience to experience the performance through their phones.)
Sometimes things seemed to grind to a halt. There was a listlessness that occasionally infected Bono’s performance, if not during the songs then between them, when he read poet Paul Muldoon’s “Hedgehog” and told a narrative of the band’s evolution without apparent structure or resolution. There were nods to politics: a spoken-word “Sympathy for the Devil” update, images of the recent white supremacy resurgence accompanying “Staring at the Sun” followed not coincidentally by the Martin Luther King Jr. tribute “Pride (In the Name of Love).” But “Bullet the Blue Sky,” the U2 song with the most direct resonance to this week’s events, was absent, almost glaringly so.
That said, it was hard not to notice “End internment” among the on-screen graffiti during a terrifically restrained and mournful “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that saw Larry Mullen Jr. hitting a single rat-a-tat military snare drum. And if the still-urgent “I Will Follow” and “Gloria” weren’t as fiery as when four young men on the cusp of 20 first spat them out, they were now more confident, experience and innocence fused together as one.
At TD Garden, ThursdayMarc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spacecitymarc.