Last summer, U2 celebrated 30 years of 1987’s “The Joshua Tree” with concerts at Soldier Field. On Tuesday night, the Irish rockers performed the first of two dates at the comparatively intimate United Center. Any intra-band cravings for backward glances were clearly satiated on the gridiron; not even “Where the Streets Have No Name” made the set list: The “eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE” tour date had a different story to tell.

The songs traced a narrative theme through bookend albums “Songs of Innocence” and 2017’s “Songs of Experience.” The uncertainty and potential of youth were juxtaposed with the perspective of maturity and inevitable mortality. “When we were young men, we thought, ‘Who needs innocence when experience looks like so much fun?’” said Bono while introducing “Desire.” Against Larry Mullen Jr.’s swaggering tom-tom beat, Bono lingered tellingly over a timely lyric referencing easy access to firearms. “Might we have lost a little innocence along the way?” he asked, suggesting it could be possible and worthwhile to recover it.

U2 had put those words into action while time-traveling 38 years to become the innocent punks who played the clarion-call “I Will Follow.” They then shifted forward one year for the sinewy and wide-eyed Gospel of “Gloria.”

Innovative technology illuminated personal stories within U2’s newer material. An elevated screen concealing a catwalk allowed Bono to walk the street that shaped his childhood during “Cedarwood Road.” The show even came with its own app. iOS and Android users observed virtual reality projections as the band launched the sparkling “Love is All We Have Left.” Directing the app at your “Songs of Experience” album cover will summon electro-Bono at home, too.

U2 performs at the United Center, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Chicago. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A secondary theme promoted loving and relying upon neighbors, with or without shared political views. The message traveled easily until the giant screen scrolled images of tiki-torch marchers, Klansmen, and MAGA hats during “Staring at the Sun.” A pocket of disgruntled shouts was audible over the acoustic duet, urging Bono to quit preaching – although nothing could have been more in character.

Granted, the band offered popular fare like “Elevation,” with silly-on-the-surface rhymes about moles in holes digging for soul, but a fan who’ll yell that Bono should “shut up and sing” when he thanks United Center staff for donations to the (RED) campaign, talks about ending poverty and disease, or suggests handing the political reins to women (all of which he did), is probably lacking a clear picture of the activism U2 has consistently practiced for decades. U2 regained everyone’s enthusiasm while still promoting civil rights with “Pride (in the Name of Love)” and its tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

It wasn’t all homilies. The band ignited genuine rock and roll thrills with its first Chicago performance of “Acrobat,” a long-buried fan favorite from “Achtung Baby.” Riveted by the Edge’s slashing guitar lead, it was inconceivable that the song hadn’t been a concert favorite since 1991. With Adam Clayton’s jagged bass propulsion, “The Blackout” should provide a durable jolt for tours to come – much like the one Bono experienced during a backward stumble down a ramp shortly after the song’s conclusion. “Songs of Experience” rocker “American Soul” echoed the bombast of “The Joshua Tree” hair-raiser “Bullet the Blue Sky.” The newer song put a different spin on the “Bullet’s” outsider view of America, praising the country’s ability to be an inspirational force.

U2 concluded with the moving “13 (There is a Light),” a tender lullaby that underscored the need to recapture innocence and open-heartedness in divided times. As sermons in basketball arenas go, it seemed like a worthy one to take to the sidewalks outside.

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.

SET LIST:

01 Love Is All We Have Left

02 The Blackout

03 Lights of Home

04 I Will Follow

06 Gloria

07 Beautiful Day

08 The Ocean

09 Iris (Hold Me Close)

10 Cedarwood Road

11 Sunday Bloody Sunday

13 Until the End of the World

14 Elevation

15 Vertigo

16 Desire

17 Acrobat

18 You’re the Best Thing About Me

19 Staring at the Sun

20 Pride (In the Name of Love)

21 Get Out of Your Own Way

22 American Soul

23 City of Blinding Lights

Encore:

24 One

25 Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way

26 13 (There Is a Light)

Bono (clockwise from front), Adam Clayton Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge of U2 perform during the “Experience + Innocence” tour at the United Center on Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Chicago. | Photo by Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP