The tours before The Joshua Tree tour were basically just one long tour altogether, where U2 sometimes just started or continued touring despite release dates of albums. All these tours can more be considered to be tours to promote the band U2 rather than a specific album. The Unforgettable Fire tour for instance already started a month and a half prior to the release of the proper The Unforgettable Fire album. These tours were a build-up for later, where U2 could follow the "usual order" of releasing an album and then doing a world tour to promote it. The first "real" opening night album-wise was the Joshua Tree Tour opening night. Back to 1987...
2 April, 1987 - Tempe, Arizona: An opening night for a tour is planned months, sometimes even more than a year, in advance. And then, when the day finally comes, bad things can happen. They did on that day in Tempe, Arizona, two weeks after the release of the album. Bono spent much of this day in the hospital trying to regain his vocal chords which he lost, in a city where Joshua tree flourish for the start of the tour with the same name. The show had a rather short set, 17 songs, and the the second Tempe show was rescheduled to April 4th instead of 3rd. This show featured 3 live debuts from this album: I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, Bullet The Blue Sky and Running To Stand Still. It also featured the tour-debuts of 3 other songs: Where The Streets Have No Name, Exit and In God's Country. Technically, Streets had made its live debut a few days earlier when they shot the videoclip on a Liquor Store Rooftop in LA. This technicality also applies to Exit and In God's Country, which featured their live debut in a TV studio in Dublin.
If you don't count video shoot and promo appearances, six songs from the Joshua Tree tour album made their tour debut in this rather short setlist, most of which are still being played live in nowadays. Only In God's Country and Exit didn't make their cut into the next decade setlists. The short setlist also resulted in another notable fact, which is that With Or Without You wasn't performed, and had to wait two more days for its live debut. Despite Bono's vocal problems, the press reacted positively to the show: "Flying in the face of defeat is precisely what this band is about, and Bono and company showed a determination and spirit that would have convinced any unbeliever".
21 September, 1989 - Perth, Australia: With 8,000 fans in Perth's Entertainment Centre U2 kicked off the Lovetown tour following the release of the Rattle and Hum album. U2 got the chance to have B.B. King play with the band which would prove to be a success along this short but powerful tour. Most of the people in the audience had never seen U2 before and are clearly enjoying this amazing live experience; the band also commented after the show that they were delighted by the warm reception. The 22-song long setlist featured the live debuts of 4 songs from Rattle and Hum: Hawkmoon 269, Desire, All I Want Is You and God Part II, whereas Hawkmoon 269 is considerably different to the studio version. Promo appearances aside, Angel of Harlem, When Love Comes To Town and Love Rescue Me also made their tour debut. Of these 7 songs from Rattle and Hum (more than half of the album!), Angel of Harlem, Desire and All I Want Is You make it to become regulars in U2's setlists. Hawkmoon 269 ended up only being played 9 times in U2 history, which proves that an opening night can sometimes be very historic when it comes to some live appearances of songs. Due to the set-up of the Lovetown tour, many fans attended every show in each city, so U2 ended up having a number of setlists to make each night in town different!
29 February, 1992 - Lakeland, Florida: In the winter of 1992 it had been just over 2 years after Bono announced that U2 were going to "dream it all up again", and the fans witnessed the result of that dream in Lakeland: the start of the most acclaimed tour in U2 history. It took place in Florida, at U2's first concert in North America since they closed the Joshua Tree Tour in December, at Tempe (the same city where it started in April). Everything was different about U2: the music, the band looks, the stage, the whole vibe of U2. The band obviously intended to shock people, and do as many things different as they could. Looking at the setlist, this resulted in not only the live debut of 10(!) out of 12 songs from Achtung Baby (although One was played on Top of the Pops two days earlier), it also resulted in the first 8(!) songs to be from that album.
If you would attend that first ZooTV show as a U2-fan but not as an Achtung Baby fan, you probably would have left after half an hour. Only So Cruel and Acrobat didn't make the tour's first setlist. Acrobat ultimately never made it to any show to this day, despite being a long lasting wish of many U2 fans. All other 10 songs remained being played during the entire tour, though not at every show. Wild Horses for instance wasn't included in any 1993 ZooTV show. As for demand, the demand for ZooTV ticket sales outstripped supply by over ten to one. U2 lived up to their expectations, although it took some time until fans became acquainted with the many contradictions and changes U2 had underwent. Welcome to Zoo TV. Welcome to the new U2.
25 April, 1997 - Las Vegas, Nevada: The city of Las Vegas looked like to be a symbolic choice to open up U2's larger-than-life Popmart tour. U2 however, just needed a stadium which wouldn't have a football team so they could use for three weeks. It had been 3,5 years since U2 performed live on a tour, and when the Popmart Tour started, U2 had just came out of the studio completing the recordings for the album. They barely had any time to practice these songs live, which was very noticeable. Two days before the premiere, U2 didn't even manage to complete a dry run of the entire set. On top of that, Bono's voice was also clearly not in a good shape which made it even worse for the band. Staring At The Sun -it had to be restarted and played twice- and Discotheque -Edge's guitar malfunctioned throughout the song- were two examples of performances that went south during the show.
U2 originally wanted to leave out all their great hits during the PopMart tour debut, but were convinced to include some and chose to include Pride and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. Despite the limited time to practice the Pop songs live, U2 included a total of 10 out of 12 album songs in the live show, plus the non-album single Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me. The only songs from Pop that were not played at the opening night were Wake Up Dead Man and Playboy Mansion (although it was played as a snippet). On the other hand, Do You Feel Loved was only played six times in the remainder of the tour and If God Will Send His Angels' only full band performance turned out to be this night in Vegas. Wake Up Dead Man got played live later on the tour as well, making the Pop album one of their few albums where all songs have been played live. Reviews after the Vegas opening night were very mixed and ranged from headlines such as "Greatest rock show on earth" to "Flop Mart". Despite Bono labelling Popmart as "their greatest tour ever", in subsequent tours the band basically ignored the Pop album and have barely played anything from it in the past 15 years.
24 March, 2001 - Sunrise, Florida: The PopMart tour and Pop album had shaken up things quite a lot for U2, so the band wanted to learn from their mistakes and needed their new album and tour to be a (commercial) success. For the Elevation tour U2 worked with a financial advisor to figure out how much different types of tours will cost the band. This meant unprofitable areas (South America) and cities were ignored and smaller arenas were chosen over stadiums, but on the other hand that generated more publicity (as the arena shows sold out in minutes). With the Elevation tour U2 also introduced a real promo tour for the first time, where many album songs got to make their live debut. The Irving Plaza "club" show in December 2000 is considered to be the highlight of this promo tour by many fans, besides giving U2 the ability to practice well these songs. U2 really learned their lesson after PopMart and all of this set the basis for a very successful tour.
Nearly 19,000 fans sold out the opening show in Sunrise, Florida, where they first witnessed the "new U2" which was very different compared to the nineties. With the promo tour preceding the tour, many album songs had already made their live debut, so only Walk On and In A Little While made their live debut, and Elevation, Beautiful Day, Stuck In A Moment and New York made their tour debut. Some might argue The Ground Beneath Their Feet also belongs in the second group, being an extra song on the album in some countries. Without that song accounted for, 6 out of 11 songs from All That You Can't Leave Behind made an appearance in the first show, equalling the Joshua Tree and Lovetown tours in numbers but still considered low compared to Zoo TV and PopMart's debut shows. The reception of the show was pretty good, and fans liked the more "stripped down" approach and some familiar songs played in a new fashion (such as The Fly). It was as good as you could expect from an opening night. Looking at how the opening night shaped the tour, you can conclude that many songs didn't survive it to the end such as Discotheque, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and The Sweetest Thing.
28 March, 2005 - San Diego, California: The Vertigo tour had many resemblances to the Elevation tour, as it was preceded by a promo tour and started in the month March in arenas in North America. Two days before the opening night in San Diego U2 played a dress rehearsal show in Los Angeles, where 600 radio competition winners and people waiting around the venue got to witness a set of 21 songs. Ticket sales went great, all 110 shows of the tour were quick sell-outs, although U2.com was involved in a ticket pre-sale controversy that upset fans. Users who paid $40 for a subscription were promised the opportunity to purchase tickets in a pre-sale, however, many fans were unable to as technical glitches plagued the site and many scalpers took advantage. Larry had to apologise for it later at the Grammy Awards.
A little over 15,000 fans attended the opening night in San Diego, which by then was the only official opening night of a tour that didn't feature any live debut of a song at all. Of course, this had lot to do with the dress rehearsal two days earlier where City Of Blinding Lights, Miracle Drug, Love And Peace Or Else, Yahweh and All Because Of You made their live debut. Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own made its debut a bit earlier at a promo tour date, as did Vertigo being the lead single of the album. Most of the new songs played that night in San Diego remained being a part of the entire tour. Reviews were positive after the opening night, the band seemed well prepared and some performances were really good. Of course there were a few technical issues and weaker performances (such as Elevation) but that's something usual for an opening night.
2009-06-30 - Barcelona, Spain: For the first time since the early 80s, U2 opened a tour in Europe, and for the first since the 90s U2 started with a stadium tour. U2 felt confident that the 360 tour would be a commercial success, that plus the fact that Blackberry got to sponsor the tour, resulted in one of the most expensive stages ever built: The Claw. Assembled earlier in Belgium and practiced with for weeks in the Camp Nou stadium of Barcelona, U2 amazed more than 90,000 fans with their spectaculair new show. As it's become usual for U2, they did a promo tour again (the promo tour with the most show dates so far) and then again they did a dress rehearsal the day before where Unknown Caller and Moment of Surrender made their live debut. This resulted in the fact that, for the second tour in a row, no song made its live debut during the official opening night.
U2 played Breathe, No Line On The Horizon, Get On Your Boots, Magnificent, Unknown Caller, I'll Go Crazy... and Moment of Surrender from their new album, a total of 7 songs. Breathe, Unknown Caller and No Line didn't make it into any setlist from the 360 tour after 2009 (only No Line was played once in Finland in 2010, in a different fashion). As U2 got to spend a lot time practicing these new songs, they were performed quite well, although ironically a classic song like One (which you think U2 could play in their dreams) was messed up entirely. In general, reviews were quite positive and this show is amongst one of the favourite shows for fans to listen to. The show, the stage, the stadium and 90,000 fans paved the way for one of the most successful U2 tours in history.
For the Innocence and Experience tour U2 went back to indoor arenas, as they did for the Vertigo Tour (in America) and the Elevation Tour (worldwide). This more intimate approach proved to be a success on May 14, 2015, when U2 opened the tour in Vancouver with two sold-out shows. 7 songs from the new album Songs of Innocence made their tour debut, and songs like Bullet The Blue Sky and Sweetest Thing came back in the set after missing one or more tours. A surprise it was that U2 omitted One from the set, for the first time since its live debut in 1992. The opening night was not the best performance of U2 ever, but in general it was quite good with very few mistakes, especially considering the fact that it was an opening night. It didn't went without an incident though, as The Edge, while holding his guitar at the end of the concert, walked straight onto the end of the stage and fell off. He didn't hurt himself seriously, although he later revealed that this was very close. He just landed "right". The opening night and tour received positive reviews, both from fans and journalists. "U2 has reinvented the arena show", as one would refer to it. The night turned out to be the start to one of U2's most greatest tours ever played.
Near the end of 2016 U2 announced a tour most thought would never happen: an anniversary tour, celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, U2's most successful and popular album. The tour started, once again, in the city of Vancouver on 12 May 2017. U2 as promised played the entire Joshua Tree album from start to finish, and closed the night with an unreleased track from their upcoming Songs of Experience album: The Little Things That Give You Away. Aside from U2 playing the whole Joshua Tree album which includes lots of rarities and songs not played for a long time: 2 songs had their live debut, 2 were not played since the 80s. One of those 80s songs received a lot of praise that night: 'Exit', maybe the big highlight. A new revolutionary 8k screen stunned fans and critics and would continue to do so for the remainder of 2017. Most went as planned during the opening night, although the band was definitely a bit tense. Bono for instance had little to say and his speeches were short, in huge contrast with almost all other shows that year. Some elements such as a "chant" for the people in power and the performance of MLK turned out to not work at all and would not return for any other show. Something just for the opening night. But in the end, the show proved that The Joshua Tree was worth revisiting and according to Bono was "more relevant today than it was then".
If you go back in time and re-experience U2's opening nights you can conclude that they are always something special. Some songs may never be played in the same way (or at all) as the band plays them on opening nights. In the days of the internet no show feels as new and as a surprise as the opening night of a U2 tour. The opening night has also proven to be a proper indication for the remainder of a tour, as positive reviews usually lead to a positively received tour and bad reviews can equally work the other way around. It has also never happened that U2 decided to ditch the majority of a set or way of performing, they usually stick to a set of the same songs for the entirety of a tour.