It has been almost eight years since the first – and only – time Guess List has seen U2 live. Then it was September 1, 2001 and an unprecedented second sell out night at Slane Castle. In a little over nine months time Fianna Fail would come within a handful of seats of winning an overall majority in a General Election which would act as a barometer of their Tiger-era popularity.
The Elevation tour, off the back of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, had come to the end of its European leg in the band’s native country, and between the two Saturday gigs the lead singer buried his father, leading to speculation as to whether the show would go on. A 68th-minute Jason McAteer goal against Holland, witnessed by the 80,000-strong crowd on the big screen, had virtually guaranteed Ireland’s place in the 2002 World Cup. As cliched as it sounds, there genuinely was a sense of magic in the air. Tickets were gold-dust and the atmosphere was just right for a special night, just over a week before the world changed forever.
Now, the conditions that surrounded U2’s homecoming for their 360° tour couldn’t have been more different. Since then the success of All That You Can’t Leave Behind increasingly seems to be a brilliant fluke rather than a genuine return to form, as confirmed by the so-so How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and the sub-par No Line On The Horizon (read our thoughts here). Cynicism surrounding U2 in recession-era Ireland is unrelenting; the Dublin four piece are probably the only stadium act in the world to release €30 tickets for their shows in an economic downturn and have their motives questioned, rather than have the gesture applauded. The pre-Croke Park show buzz doesn’t centre on the speculated set-list but goes over unsold tickets, unhappy local residents, frictions within the group and the band’s tax arrangements. The knives are well and truly out.
It’s impossible to review U2’s 360° tour without mentioning the bloody great big elephant in the room; the claw. With its antenna poking above the height of the stadium’s stands the ambitious stage set up is a sight to behold. Imposing certainly, the the practicality of the monstrosity also works wonders in the lighting and sound; the acoustics coming from the speakers within the stage are pitch perfect and allay the fears of those who witnessed the reported sound problems that dogged the Vertigo tour in the same venue four years ago.
Coming on stage to Bowie’s Space Oddity, U2 pay lip service to the new album by opening up with four tracks from No Line On The Horizon. Opener Breathe sounds better live than on record, and the title track of the album is a solid track that warms up the crowd before even the die-hards only nod obligingly to the woeful Get On Your Boots – the performance was fine, it’s just the worst single the band have ever released. The best track on NLOTH Magnificent really sets the tone for the rest of the night, with The Edge’s wailing solos wildly received before Beautiful Day rips the lid off and crowd jumper Elevation follows. From here U2 are well and truly out of the traps.
The now standard ‘we can do it without the bells and whistles’ section of the set comes in after Elevation, with a stomping acoustic version of Desire riling the crowd and a beautiful, stripped back Stuck In A Moment a real high point. Bono works the crowd as always through each number, but keeps the gushing crowd interaction to a minimum. That said, about 80,000 people cringe when Bono says that ‘in the words of our good friends The Corrs, we are so young now.’ More lip service is paid in his platitudes for the ‘great’ local residents and one ecstatic fan at the barrier has her phone borrowed while he talks to the boyfriend or brother on the other end of the line. A rousing singsong of The Auld Triangle echoes around Croke Park in honour of Ronny Drew before the crowd check their watches as One, usually a closer, is played half way through the set.
Another pleasant surprise comes in the form of the brilliant Until The End Of The World from Achtung Baby, and The Unforgettable Fire, City Of Blinding Lights and Vertigo up the ante, with the nightfall bringing the best out of the dazzling visuals. Guess List is left scratching his head for a minute trying to recognise what song from Pop or Zooropa is played next before realising that it’s a ‘remixed’ version of new single I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight. While the experimental effort is admirable, even fun at the start, the novelty soon wears off and it goes on at least a minute too long.
From then on it’s the big hitters. A brilliant Sunday, Bloody Sunday is suitably followed up by Pride (In The Name Of Love) before MLK and Walk On warm up a spine-tingling Where The Streets Have No Name and a glorious merged version of Bad and 40 that leaves the crowd singing as the band leave the stage for their brief pre-encore break.
Ultra Violet (Light My Way) kicks off the encore, with Bono following a swinging circular mike that looks like a periscope and hangs, boxing announcer style, from the claw above. The dry ice is put into overdrive to provide contrast for the dozens of pin point lazers that emanate from the seams of the lead singer’s jacket – the sort of U2 showmanship that cynics deride but is spectacular when witnessed first hand. With Or Without You predicably has hands thrust in the air as all in attendance match Bono’s howls. The finale is the ultimate sign of U2’s infectiousness live; Moment Of Surrender from NLOTH is belted out and supersedes the recorded version, engrossing all in attendance (even those of us who aren’t exactly enamoured by the song.)
Complexions, accents and even football jerseys from around the world spill out of Croker after the first night of what is a mini-industry for Dublin over the four days U2 are in town. Only the most begrudging critic would deny that the 360° tour is anything less than spectacular, and a timely reminder that as a band U2 are still capable of enthralling an audience better than most. In a culture where ‘stadium rock’ is a dirty word, double-speak for soul-less commercialism, U2 dust off the term and wear it as a badge of honour. It’s a shot in the arm to anyone who has been disappointed with their recent output and restores at least some of the faith in the group. It is a faith that will, based on the last two albums, be severely tested on the next LP.
Hope goes against this expectation however, but regardless of this live triumph, the knives will be out again.
Pictures are courtesy of www.u2gigs.com, where you can find setlists, pictures and videos from all the shows from the current tour.
Ronan over on Swear I’m Not Paul is hosting links to many U2 live bootlegs from down the years.