New York City’s historic Beacon Theater, with its stunning interiors and magnificent chandelier, is a long way from the punk clubs where Irish rockers U2 cut their teeth in the late ’70s. But the group’s lead singer, Bono, was able to conjure the band’s early days in vibrant detail with just tables, chairs, monitors displaying his lo-fi artwork and a tasteful instrumental trio during the opening stop of his “Stories of Surrender” book tour on Nov. 2.
The crowd — packed with celebs including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Andy Cohen, Jimmy Iovine, Tom Hanks, Michael Stipe, Jann Wenner and many more — wasn’t sure what to expect from the event, but Bono delivered a mix between a stripped down U2 greatest hits set and monologues which were sometimes theatrical, sometimes poetic, and always achingly heartfelt.
Backed by a band that included cellist Kate Ellis; singer, keyboard player and vocalist Gemma Doherty; and longtime U2 producer Jacknife Lee on keyboards and percussion, Bono started the evening with rearranged versions of U2 hits before reading the first lengthy passage from his just-released memoir, “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story.” The book, divided up into chapters which connect U2 hits to passages from his life, touches on themes such as his love for his wife, Ali Hewson (as described in “With Or Without You,”) the growth of the band and their search for meaning (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”) and his relationship with his parents (“Iris (Hold Me Close)”).
Bono’s voice was strong and clear while performing the hits, soaring over the tasteful arrangements on anthems such as “Beautiful Day,” “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Desire.” But his Irish lilt was humble in storytelling, whether recalling a life-saving heart surgery or recounting his weekly conversations with his father, Bob, in their local Irish pub, which continued well into the band’s success. The banter between the duo was revisited several times throughout the performance, which includes charming run-ins with icons like Princess Diana and Luciano Pavarotti. The latter teed up the emotional climax of the show, with Bono delivering a show-stopping rendition of “Torna a Surriento,” the Neapolitan song famously recorded by the legendary tenor.
Like any stage show, “Surrender” could have benefitted from a dress rehearsal to gauge the audience reaction to the music and storytelling hybrid, as there were a few beats when the narrative cut the songs short just as the crowd was most responsive. Also, a few deep cuts could have maybe subbed in for the fluffy “Vertigo,” as well as one of the renditions of “City of Blinding Lights,” which both began the set and was repeated in the encore. But those are picky notes on a rare evening in which one of rock’s biggest voices laid himself bare.
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