Review by John Hayhurst

I have a history with U2 in that I have managed to miss every UK live tour since turning down tickets in 1983 to see them at Leeds Uni. No malice intended, it just never happened for many reasons – I’m not a fan of huge shows where I can’t see the whites of the artist’s eyes without the aid of a TV screen or a second mortgage, so U2 being the stadium filling £££ generating monolithic enterprise, I have avoided them until now. Having lost Bowie, Prince and Tom Petty and missed the chance of seeing them live for the same reasons, I vowed I would make every effort in future to catch a legendary band or artist before it becomes too late.

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However, U2 managed with this ground breaking technical set up to change my view of arena shows, it was an intense experience for those in certain key areas of the megadome tonight, just about everyone had a view of the giant video screen cage that Bono & Co were projected on, performing underneath, or even contained within. Then there were two stages, one at the traditional end which was fully open, so some punters had a band back view most of the time, and also a much smaller circular stage at the opposite end for a more intimate feel for the lucky few dotted around the perimeter. Moments of sheer closeness felt in a huge arena, unbelievable – why can’t all stadium shows be like this?

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Opening with the final speech from Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ the key words magnified on the screen signified the political intent and theme of the night. This can overshadow everything at times, and much of the verbal backlash over the years from the ‘build them up, then knock them down’ squad is vented here, a political element that Bono in particular, enthuses before certain songs. Fresh from the London March against the Brexit referendum, a large proportion of the show is built around messages of unity, remembering Europe loves you, those in power lie, together we are stronger etc. Even an EU flag with a Union Jack coloured star and a heart drawn around it served as further reminder, and when Bono starts his “Blessed are…..” speech, it turned into that ‘Life of Brian’ Monty Python sketch in my head, with one of the congregation replying “Oooh! it’s the meek, Blessed are the meek, I’m glad they’re getting something cos they’ve had ‘ell of a hard time recently”. It isn’t that 90% of us disagree with the sentiments – we just don’t want to be force fed it by millionaire musicians when we are on a night out.

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All joking aside, and when you strip away the pretentious bollocks in-between the songs – this is as good as it gets for a huge anthemic rock band in a massive stadium. Tonight, U2 performed raw versions of ‘Gloria’, ‘New Year’s Day’ and ‘I Will Follow’ like the last 30 years hadn’t happened, everyone on their feet, fists pumping the air and singing along. Bono revels in recalling about the hard times – playing the Hope and Anchor to 34 people, almost breaking up before they wrote ‘One’, and then a magnificent ‘Zoo Station’, where the caged screen turns into a Deutsche Bahn Berlin tube station with Bono breaching serious safety regulations by hanging out of a train. Classic singles like ‘Beautiful Day’ and ‘Pride’ with all the rock posturing and a big big sound – it is only Larry, Edge, Bono and Adam, the same four that started the band in 1976, unlike other big acts currently touring that have sacked or changed personnel and employ a number of extras to fill out the sound on tour. There is a lot to be said for the longevity of a group of four school friends, playing music in the late 70’s and then forty years later still managing to stay in each other’s company, touring the world and filling enormodomes of this size.

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Beautiful moments happen when Bono’s voice holds for a majestic ‘Stay’ and ‘City of Blinding Lights’ display formed from dozens of strip lights looked amazing combined with the starry cell phones from those that still had some battery left.

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Last year they toured The Joshua Tree album, so tonight we are not getting anything from that record, which is a shame but understandable, instead those gaps were filled with 7 tracks from ‘Songs of Experience’. The effects of screen and different stages significantly helped here, as they detracted from the fact that these songs were potentially the weaker points in the setlist. More noticeable were the 1st three tracks played on the small stage when Bono was in his MacPhisto character. They walked through the caged screen as the cartoon Batman ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me..’ sequence started, and appeared at the other end of the arena with Bono in top hat and thick black eyebrow makeup.

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Technically very clever as the huge screen showed the grotesque character as a filter over Bono’s face, the lips and crooked teeth moving as he introduced ‘Elevation’, ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’. This was one of the highlights of the whole show. Seeing the band very close up for those 3 tracks was the prize for those placed around the perimeter of the small stage, the price they paid for that was not being able to see the screen and being the furthest away from the main stage performances.

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It was a stunning technical and musical performance and whilst some of it was clearly staged, and I doubt they are changing much in the setlist order on this tour, it was an incredibly professional production. The Edge keeps his playing succinct and fairly understated, which is a relief, he’s kind of stepped away from the Edge to safety, but that’s better than the endless fretwankery that some of his peers indulge in, we don’t need that, there is already one over inflated ego in the room.

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After the ‘Macphisto’ sequence, Bono removes his make-up whilst pretend talking into the camera to his wife Ali about the trials and tribulations of being married to ‘The Showman’, it was part charming, part “pass the sick bucket” but all the while I thought it was an opportunity lost to just play ‘Sweetest Thing’ and dedicate it to all their wives and partners.

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As a way to get back to the main stage area they play one number from all sides of the arena, Edge and Adam standing on podiums no bigger than 6ft squares, whilst Larry drummed on the main stage and Bono stayed at the small circle area. The sound engineers probably reaching their peak stress levels at that point!

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They should have ended with ‘One’ because the encores were two songs from their latest album, and it all fell a little flat. Or better still go out in a blaze of glory with ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ or ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’. Having taken their bows 2 songs earlier it would have been a more graceful exit than Bono walking into the crowd saying “Goodnight London” and almost getting trampled in the rush with those trying to get an early tube back to Zoo Station London.

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Bono is no longer just a boy in a rock band from North Dublin, now he is this world political activist and self-appointed prophet of humanity, and as soon as you are elevating yourself to a ‘holier than though’ position it tends to leave a bad smell in the air. Let the music, lyrics and imagery do the talking, leave the political sermons to be contained within the song, and let your audience enjoy a night out of escapism with a brilliant live performance – at times tonight it still felt fresh, inspiring and euphoric.

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

SETLIST: The Blackout / Lights of Home / I Will Follow / Gloria / Beautiful Day / Zoo Station / The Fly / Stay / Wild Horses / Elevation / Vertigo / Even Better Than the Real Thing / Acrobat / You’re the Best Thing / Summer of Love / Pride / Get Out of Your Own Way / New Year’s Day / City of Blinding Lights / One / ENCORE: Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way / There is a Light

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