Wednesday 18th November 2015 – SSE Arena, Belfast
For decades, the great minds of each generation have pondered the Irish question, a moral dilemma so emotive it has split the country in two, turning communities against each other and pitting brother against brother: what is the answer to the U2 conundrum? Should we embrace them as champions of epic, morally conscious stadium rock that brought Irish music to the world stage? Or disown them as over the top, hypocritical chancers whose pretentious, heart on sleeve sound has long since had its day?
Whatever side of the wall you reside on, you can’t deny the merits of what was once just a rock n roll band is still a white hot issue: the furore that surrounded the sudden, straight to iTunes release of new album ‘Songs of Innocence’ was treated by some non-believers as an act of war. While an objection to having an album uploaded to your device without consent is understandable, one would have to question whether a new album from Arcade Fire or Arctic Monkeys being released instead would have attracted anywhere near as emotive a response. U2, a band whose finger has always been on the pulse of fan reaction, came out fighting, and must have secretly been delighted with the whole circus: for a band whose albums can be stirring (War), ethereal (The Unforgettable Fire), daring (Achtung Baby), bombastic (Rattle and Hum), bizarre (Pop) and simply sublime (The Joshua Tree), to have created such hoopla on the 13th and most aggressively average record of their career can only be seen as a marketing masterstroke.
U2’s enduring appeal in their native island was made plain when their two Belfast and four Dublin dates on the Innocence + Experience Tour sold out within 30 minutes. The first date of the Irish leg took place on Wednesday 18th November, with the band having made headlines days earlier having had to cancel their planned Saturday night concert in Paris due to the horrors of the 13th. Always a band alert to current affairs, the sense of a world still rocked from that barbarity of that Friday night was clearly in the Odyssey air as the group’s loyal converts began to fill it up. On entry to the floor it was clear that this was not going to be a standard arena rock show: despite the band’s talk of ‘scaling down’ to arenas, U2 still pushed the boat out, with a runway/ impromptu stage leading from the dressing rooms near the entrance right up to the regular stage, and massive multimedia screens hanging on either side. When you’ve spent nigh on 30 years as self-proclaimed ‘biggest band in the world’, scaling down has an entirely different meaning.
With bemused fans still trying to work out the best place to stand, a hush fell as Patti Smith’s ‘People Have The Power’ blasted over the sound system: with that, Bono emerged, boxer like, from the far dressing room and scaled the walkway to triumphant cheers . Prowling around the platform in his leather jacket, trademark sunglasses and sporting his new bleach blonde quiff, the veteran approached the crowd with the sense of a man with everything to prove. With introductions dispersed with, he launched, a capella, into the vocal hook of new album opener ‘The Miracle of Joey Ramone.’ Eventually securing an appropriate level of call-and-response vocals with the crowd, the full band kicked in from the far stage as Bono made his way to join them. And fine they sounded, too: The Edge’s riff was satisfyingly meaty, with Larry Mullan Jr.’s drums giving a pounding backbeat to proceedings. Having opened with a nostalgic ode to the inspirational power of punk on the first track, the band wisely followed up with a song written shortly after the opener’s event: hard core fans were sent wild by ‘The Electric Co.’, a jittering slice of nervous post-punk from the band’s 1980 debut Boy. The band fully embraced nostalgia with Bono throwing in verses from ‘Send in the Clowns’ and The Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’, with Edge teasingly adding the riff to other early triumph ‘Gloria’ in the song’s outro.
The band shifted sonically from a naïve punks to radio-rock old hands with ‘Vertigo’, the song that launched a thousand iPod advertisements. This catchy and entirely disposable number had the crowd bellowing back the chorus of “Uno, dos, tres, catorce”, even if Bono’s off-kilter delivery of the verses prevented a full crowd singalong. However, the band found time for another, more familiar ‘Boy’ cut: ‘I Will Follow’ has been played over a staggering 900 times, and still carries the same vibrant energy with every performance. If U2 had never released another album, this song’s punky backbeat, Bono’s impassioned vocal and The Edge’s chiming guitar sound (several years before anyone had heard of The Smiths or REM) would have still guaranteed their place as college rock legends.
After an enjoyable but unsure opening, Bono pleaded with fans to take time to listen to songs written about their youth: ‘they’re gonna play the new stuff now’ did see a small minority make their way to the bar, but the majority who stayed were treated to an indicator of the multimedia extravaganza that followed: the screens on either side of the walkway showed Bono’s childhood home movies during the eulogy to his late mother, ‘Iris, Hold Me Close.’ Next track ‘Cedarwood Road’ showed the full extent of the visual gimmickry: Bono disappeared behind the screens, with his silhouette appearing to walk down the depiction of the Dublin street of his youth, before teenage love letter ‘Song For Someone’ depicted a teenage caricature of the singer strumming love songs in his bedroom.
The medley was broken by the unmistakable chords of ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’. A song that always guarantees an emotive response, especially in Belfast, the events of the previous week gave new relevance to the song’s condemnation of pointless, civilian bloodshed. With Larry reduced to a simple drumbeat with his military style drum, the anthem was brought down to a mournful whisper. Despite seeming to strike a poignant chord in its introduction, shorn of the driving, tense funk of Mullan’s drumming that defined the definitive live versions, such as the 1983 Red Rocks performance, the song unfortunately failed to ignite. It did clear the way for a powerful performance of new album stand-out ‘Raised By Wolves’, Bono’s personal account of his near miss with a UVF car bomb in 1974. With the screen giving the audience a tour of the murals of Northern Ireland, the crowd clearly identified with Bono’s sensitive rejection of the decades of pointless bloodshed, and (surprise, surprise) did not incite the sectarian riot that former Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers claimed the song’s inclusion would. The band finished the new album suite with cathartic classic ‘Until the End of World’ from critical high-watermark ‘Achtung Baby’, with its Judas-Jesus dialogue hinting that even the worst acts can bring redemption.
After a quick break the band reappear behind the big screen in the psychedelic colour scheme of the Achtung Baby artwork to play new cut ‘Invisible’ and the 91 album’s ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing.’ Like taking a step back in time to campy fun of the Zoo TV tour, U2 took the next couple of songs to remind the audience of just how fun they could be. Running over to their newly set up mini-stage to launch into the album’s ‘baggy’ influenced hit ‘Mysterious Ways’, the crowd was truly in the palm of their hands for the first time. With Adam Clayton (sporting a Stiff Little Fingers t shirt as a nod to the punk heroes brave Paris show) providing a bassline as funky as anything to have come out of Madchester, Bono took the opportunity to use his old Live Aid trick to pull a girl up to dance from the audience: however, ‘Theresa from Italy’s’ cameo is more Courtney Cox in Dancing in the Dark than Live Aid’s impassioned embrace. Getting her to sync her iPhone to the big screens to give a stage side view in the gloriously dumb shout along ‘Elevation’, followed by Bono sitting down at the piano for a gentle take on fan favourite B Side ‘Sweetest Thing’, before Clayton and Mullan exited to leave Edge and Bono alone to perform new ballad ‘Every Breaking Wave,’ seguing into an unexpected take on the plaintive title track of 1981’s oft-forgotten sophomore record, ‘October’.
With the crowd hanging on every note, the band managed to step up another gear with the pulsating hard rock of ‘Bullet the Blue Sky.’ Bono’s modern update of the song’s monologue against Regan era policies in Central America is far from convincing, but the power of the backing band combined with the evocative images of war torn Syria, is too great for anyone in the audience to really take exception. With a refugee-centric take on 90s oddity ‘Zooropa’ following, Bono pleads with the audience to ‘be a Europe that will let refugees in’. And with that came the unmistakably warm glow of the introduction to ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’. Once named by the NME as the greatest ever, it reminds everyone that U2 at their very best are among a privileged few bands that connect with their audience on an almost spiritual level, an exclusive club who can take the spectacle of arena rock and turn it into an entirely personable dialogue between artist and audience. The majesty continued with the Martin Luther King tribute ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’, the 1984 hit which rightly propelled the band to rock behemoths. Closing out the main set was ‘Joshua Tree’’s gospel-inflected lead single ‘With or Without You’, the lonesome figure of Bono in the middle barely needed to make a sound as the crowd sang back every word.
The inevitable encore kicked off with 2005 single ‘City of Blinding Lights’, with images of Paris bringing home the song’s hopeful message of peace. Adding the monster, your-mum’s-favourite-U2-song hit ‘Beautiful Day’, Bono made a heartfelt speech on the gains made by his One Foundation in helping to almost eradicate HIV to an audience on their best behaviour (not one Charlie Sheen joke!), before Bono and Edge give a sensitive rendition of the first few verses of the Paul Simon classic ‘Mother and Child Reunion’. It was a touching moment, and the lullaby lead into the unmistakable chords of ‘One.’ At last, the band and audience where one entity, and even the most cynical of fans would struggle not to be swept into the songs sweeping mysticism.
On the back of a lacklustre LP and a furiously hostile press, U2 proved that their songbook is strong enough to lodge them permanently in the upper echelons of the world of rock. Their emotive yet commercially lucrative brand of rock n roll may be considered distinctly old hat, but like The Who and others have learned before, they have amassed (and continue to grow) a legion of fans too loyal to take any notice.