Dublin. Friday. There is, unquestionably, a buzz about the place. Venture around town and there is a sense of event normally reserved for big sporting occasions. Head down to Croke Park, navigate the road blocks, dodge the traders selling ponchos at the first sign of the – mercifully shortlived – rainfall, avoid the temptation to partake of a burger on the way in and here you are, back in Croke Park four years after a less than successful showing on the Vertigo tour. Yet, for all the anticipation, they could perhaps be forgiven for thinking this is barbed sort of homecoming with the gig proceeded by complaints from local residents, complaints from GAA fans about the grass getting ripped up, complaints that the show wouldn’t be in the round and a general admittance that, well, the album really wasn’t that good after all (see our own review here) and questions about ticket sales.
All of which is no concern to Damien Dempsey and Glasvegas, charged with / given the honour of keeping the slowly gathering crowds entertained. Of the two, it’s Dempsey who does the best – a man most definitely on his home turf. Backed by the huge PA, the music that he bellows out is not the most subtle of fare but he remains undaunted by the, largely empty, stadium and closes with a version of ‘It’s All Good’ that captures the mood of the day perfectly. Pre-gig, we would have put money on it being Glasvegas that provided the headliners with the closest run for their money, albeit still from a huge distance. Sadly, they just don’t cut it. Opener ‘Geraldine’ is ruined by awful sound and when James Allan makes an ill-advised, harmless but pointless crack about their hosts for the night (think Richard Ashcroft and REM last year) it unfortunately sets the tone. We love this band but they quickly became a noise playing in the corner as opposed to the magnificent experience they can be. Let’s hope they work on their big gig form before their Kings Of Leon US tour slot.
These days, big gig experience is what defines U2‘s career. The signs are that they’re facing one of those crossroads that have defined them over the years – the ‘Rattle & Hum’ period and the post ‘Pop’ rethink. 2009 sees them on the edge of joining the standard stadium rock club of the Stones, the Eagles and the like, trotting out a greatest hits set every couple of years with the occasional, perfunctory album to hang it on. We know that they’d rather be duking it out with the Coldplays and Green Days of this world but, with No Line On The Horizon gathering dust on many shelves, the first signs of pressure are on. Not that you’d know when the band open with four tracks from said album, a bold move that they manage to get away with purely because the sheer exuberance and band and crowd carry them through – to have placed such a chunk of new material later in the set could have been a disaster.
What this opening twenty minutes or so does do is a) get ‘Get On Your Boots’ out of the way and b) allow us to take in the whole 360º experience or in this case, 270º. For some reason to do with Hill 16 and health and safety, the claw structure finds itself in the standard place for a stage, rendering the whole rear half out of action and leaving the band to play against the less than impressive backdrop of grey concrete. It is an impressive structure alright though and the sound is perfect from the first note, as well as being loud enough to be heard in Ranelagh.
With ‘Magnificent’ bring new album duties to an admittedly rousing close, it all begins to fall into place. Seemingly working back through their albums one by one (although giving How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb a wise body swerve), ‘Beautiful Day’ and ‘Elevation’ are reminders that their second great turning point produced a response every bit as good as Achtung Baby. Having given the evening its first real lift, they pull their first real masterstroke – an acoustic driven, Bo Diddley version of ‘Desire’ that leads into Bono and The Edge alone on a spine tingling ‘Stuck In A Moment’.
It heralds a purple patch for the show and the realisation that this is perhaps the only way now to experience U2, that they need this scale like no other band. Bono may annoy the hell out of you on the small stage but here he makes perfect sense and those gestures that can come across as contrived and crass seem just normal. He is a surprisingly understated presence tonight and the expected ‘it’s great to be home’ speech is simple and heartfelt. With the drunks on the Royal Canal and the inmates of Mountjoy listening in, he leads the crowd in a version of ‘The Auld Triangle’ for Ronnie Drew that brings a sense of community to 80,000 people.
With a sublime ‘One’, fiery ‘Until The End Of The World’ and the lights turning on for ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ they really can do no wrong. Then the wobbles set in. ‘City Of Blinding Lights’ is full of empty bombast, ‘Vertigo’ only a slight upgrade and then they launch into a truly bizarre dance version of ‘I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight’ that seems to last an eternity and recalls the dark days of Popmart.
It’s not the only questionable moment of the night, many of which come when they look to tackle the big topics. Their dedication to the cause of Aung San Suu Kyi is admirable but is a parade of cardboard mask wearing folk around the front of the stage really the most effective way to get the message across? Likewise, the Max Headroom meets Father Ted multimedia Desmond Tutu. They do, however, get it right on an amazing version of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. To give that particular song a new context, especially in these particular surroundings, is no mean feat but bathed in green light and with the use of projections alone, it becomes an anthem for a whole new generation of street protesters.
Closing with a dreamy version of ‘Bad’ that merges into ’40’, and an encore that recalls the bells and whistles approach of Zoo TV, tonight saw U2 put an end to much of the tittle tattle, sniping and carping, as well as tackling the justified criticism. This is a show that both manages to combine the history of the old guard and teach the new kids on the block a thing or two. They re-connected with a country in crisis and offered platitudes (“there’s nothing that we can’t do”) rather than calling out those to blame but in terms of the right here, right now, shows like this don’t come much better. You just wish that they’d be able to bring some of this invention and energy to their records but with another album from the No Line On The Horizon sessions promised, this renewed faith may find itself tested again sooner than we think.
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