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Thursday 29th October 2015

O2 Arena, London

The theme and title of U2's current created for arena’s tour is "Innocence and Experience". Those ideas don’t stay perfectly separated in life, nor do they in the band’s complicated and forceful show. And over their 39-year career, U2’s live shows have oscillated between gravely sincere and daftly ironic. This quite frankly had put this reviewer off until now. I had heard about the band’s 1997 PopMart tour when they arrived on stage in a giant flying lemon, dressed like The Village People. Ten years previously, they had toured the world as po-faced Blues journeymen, all ponytails and pomposity. Perhaps it’s only with the benefit of hindsight, as they enter the twilight of their career, that they’ve been able to make sense of their decades together. So while this show was going to be musically varied and ambitiously staged, it was to be hoped that it had a compelling narrative and intimate feel.

If the goal was to re-connect with fans after 2011’s dodgy Glastonbury appearance and September 2014’s bungled giveaway of their latest and thirteenth album ‘Songs of Innocence’ - downloaded automatically to 500 million people’s iTunes accounts, irrespective of their musical tastes - then they succeeded. The show suggested a band at ease with itself. And there wasn’t a giant lemon or a ponytail in sight thank god! In fact, the 02 Arena lights were still on as Bono slipped onto the runway almost unnoticed..Clearly he feels he has no longer anything to prove then. The only thing that looked odd was his beach bob that makes him look like a leather trousered Freddie Starr!!

This six-night residency at the 02 Arena, and their first indoor UK concerts for 14 years, are being performed in the round across two stages linked by a walkway. There was a cage with vast see-through LED video screens as walls hung overhead. For U2, this was stripped back. And for the first five songs - during the part of the show that dealt with U2’s past in Dublin - there were no coloured lights, no screens, nothing. Just four men playing under a single oversized light bulb, like a multi-millionaire pub band. For a band whose previous, stadium-filling 360° tour lasted two years and was the highest grossing tour of all time, this run of dates counts as positively intimate.

Even if you’re not a fan of U2 seeing them play live is quite a unique and impressive experience. The Irish rockers opened their set with ‘The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)‘, a confident performance with an anthemic chorus and drubbing rhythm. The was part of the opening salvos which included ‘Gloria’ from second album ‘October’ and ‘I Will Follow’ from 1980 debut album ‘Boy’ with a stonking version of ‘Vertigo’ in between which was well received and very apt giving the WRC crew were ensconced in the cheap seats in Row M of Level 4!!

The projections screens play an important role in the stage show and are as an impressive of a use of digital technology in an arena as it can get. Particular attention has been lavished on a chunk of the ‘Songs of Innocence’ material, which opened with ‘Iris (Hold Me Close)’, Bono's ode to his late mother and which was illustrated with home movies of his parents' wedding as the singer advanced down a catwalk into the midst of it. The beautiful artwork on the screens is used to depict the street he grew up on during ‘Cedarwood Road’ and Bono simulates walking down it, as references to Bowie and the Sex Pistols swirled around, endearing the audience closer to him and the band. In ‘Song for Someone’, he sang to an animated version of himself on a screen, at 18, playing guitar in his bedroom. “He’s trying to write a song to impress a girl named Alison Stewart”, Bono said of his younger self. That girl later became his wife. “She’s here tonight; I’m still working on it.” (Nice: the past as present.)

In ‘Raised By Wolves’, surround-sound guitar noise preceded the sonic simulation of a car bomb and images of the 33 Dubliners killed by such explosives on May 17, 1974. The whole band had already shifted themselves to the narrow stretch of the catwalk for 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' and perform the homage to the war stood side-by-side as illustrations of Ireland at a time of war are shown. Bono belts out his part with touching sincerity. It ended with Larry Mullen beating a single snare drum hung round his neck (a reminder of his time in the Artane Boys Band), as a car bomb exploded on the screen above him. It was brutally effective and quite brilliant.

The band played ‘Invisible’ and ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’ between and inside the screens, so that each side of the audience saw the four musicians only through dropouts in a digital projection of the Berlin Wall having previously revamped a version of ‘The Fly’ as a piece of ambient techno and used it as a soundtrack for the “virtual" Wall. During ‘Until The End Of The World’ guitarist the Edge wanders inside it while a huge video Bono spits water over him or holds him in the palm of his hand, before both are swept away by a Biblical cartoon flood. The phrase "old dogs, new tricks" springs to mind but it was completely captivating and so bloody clever. U2’s flirtations with technology have always veered from the cutting-edge to the cheesy, and the trend continued as for ‘Mysterious Ways’ they pull a rather beautiful woman from Sarajevo from the crowd to join them on the “E Stage" to film them during ‘Elevation’ and the shaky footage becomes a simultaneous live stream for subscribers to a mobile video app. More effective is ‘Every Breaking Wave’, a melancholy ballad sighed by Bono accompanied only by The Edge on piano. Between those two songs, and a pleasant surprise here for me, was to hear ‘New Year's Day’. Still one of their best as far as WTS is concerned….

And of course U2 would not be U2 if they did not compulsively meld the personal and the political, and ‘October’ is accompanied by harrowing images of the devastation being wrought by the bombing of Syria. Fleeing migrants and Isis training camps illustrate ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’, as with megaphone in hand Bono recites the complaints of critics of his global activism: “You’re part of the problem, and exclaimed about himself: “Have you forgotten who you are?! Have you forgotten where you come from?! You’re Irish!” An explosive and discordant instrumental steered the highly political song forwards, while white lights coruscated as the Edge struck his guitar. You might question whether you go to a rock show for a seminar on history and politics, or for that matter to be bombarded with audio-visual leaflets promoting Bono's assorted good causes (AIDS, poverty, starvation and the refugee crisis all got a mention during the show, with plugs for Amnesty International and RED - Bono's AIDS-fighting charity). But U2 have been doing this a long time, so if you don't know them by now, you probably won't be at these shows anyway.

The second half really did focus on the world-conquering half of U2’s career. And the set closing back-to-back ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, ‘Pride’ and ‘With or Without You’ would be hard to beat in any setting. And here they were simply majestic, just colossal pop rock songs. Edge’s guitar fills space like no other guitarist can claim. An elaborate effects board, multiple amps, and extraordinary technique meant that Bono had already at the beginning rightfully introduced Edge as the genius of the band. He is not wrong.

Then, a recorded introduction by Stephen Hawking telling us "we must become global citizens" leads into an encore that climaxes with the band bringing the priestess of punk herself Patti Smith on stage for intimate performances of Smith’s ‘Gloria’ and her 1988 classic hit ‘People Have the Power’ which U2 are using as their entry music for this current tour but had never played in full until now. I’m not convinced all the U2 devotees in the crowd knew who she was, but they punched the air and sang along. Patti still has the power alright and to see her singing with one of the many bands that bear her influence was a joy to behold..

In summary, no other band with just a guitar, bass, drums and vocals and no overdubs sound quite so huge as U2 do live. Which is what I wanted to hear. Although Wrinkly was a tad disappointed!! He still didn't find what he was looking for as the band didn't play it!!. However, they still do this rock band thing better than the rest and it was a remarkable show. When it's all said and done, no one communicates a singular undefined emotion to millions as clearly and succinctly as U2. However the greatest risk is that one-day they will not be able to better what they’ve done before, but fortunately we’re not there just yet. There are certain concerts that go down in history, and it’s hard to believe that this wouldn’t be one.

The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)
I Will Follow
Iris (Hold Me Close)
Cedarwood Road
Song For Someone
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Raised By Wolves
Until The End Of The World
The Fly
Even Better Than The Real Thing
Mysterious Ways
New Year's Day
Every Breaking Wave
Bullet The Blue Sky
Where The Streets Have No Name
Pride (In The Name Of Love)
With Or Without You


City Of Blinding Lights (Stephen Hawking speech intro)
Beautiful Day
Mother And Child Reunion (Paul Simon cover- partial)


People Have The Power (Patti Smith song)(with Patti Smith)

Wrinkly The Silver

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