The first noticeable thing is the t-shirts. They’ve been here before, and they’re proud to flaunt it.
But the surprising part of this is that U2 concerts aren’t isolated incidents. Not because they are inherently bad, but, conversely, not because they are once-in-a-lifetime levels of awesomeness. No, it’s more that they are such a large, cavernous beast of a band that surely no one who has witnessed them post-1985 has connected with them deeply enough to warrant return visits. It would be like continually attending matinees of Fame or cooing with continual delight at the Sea Life Centre.
Then there’s the demographic. Rich, white, successful. Most are lean and adopting the Next guide to looking good while working from home – loose polo necks, combatted shorts and plush shades glued to ample scalps. They hunted in couples, enthralled to stadium selfies and politely thrusting hips to the most ‘current’ song they hear through the tannoys (NB – it was the 2008 smash ‘Kids’ by MGMT). The fact they grunt with disapproval at Noel Gallagher, a man no longer seen as cool or even current, speaks volumes.
But then again so does the fact Noel fucking Gallagher is such a non-event, adding further credence to U2’s sheer unmatched grandeur. It happened before, 20 years ago, when a still-bullish, but admittedly bloated, Oasis tried to blow away a band experimenting with onstage lemons. In 2017, though, we’ve gone from Noel Fossilised (the stale second LP, Chasing Yesterday) to Noel Neutered – without context this is a Gallagher playing second fiddle in a half-empty stadium. He plays to this gallery, inexplicably airing ‘Wonderwall’ but attempting to justify it through a strangely maudlin vocal rearrangement. It’s a shame, because when he’s on form, his voice soars, particularly on the rollicking ‘You Know We Can’t Go Back’ and the breezy ‘Riverman’. It’s chock full of hits, but there’s an aura of strangeness about it, like Noel is doing it as a favour for Bono sorting out his tax return. Liam will have Twitter ammo for decades.
Speaking of neutered, that would be a fair, if slightly harsh, critique of U2 in modern times. Even as late as 2000, the Irish band were innovative, bold and daring, reinventing rock music with hyperbolic hedonism. ‘Beautiful Day’ effectively killed any credibility they had, but touring The Joshua Tree in full feels a step backwards. But then again it is their biggest album (their best is, arguably, Achtung Baby), the bridge that took them from stars-in-waiting to indefinite arena-dwellers.
Bono in 2017 is like watching a current episode of The Simpsons – you want it to be good and commendable, but it always ends up ham-fisted and laborious. Many songs are followed with thorough thank yous, but even when Bono says he’s going “off-script” he still seems stuck to an autocue. The only time he seems truly genuine and humorous is when he, before seventh track ‘In God’s Country’, says he’s stopping to turn the record over.
Enough about the talking, though, as U2 are still arguably about the music. And, at first, the prophecy of them being one of the bands to see before deaf / death is fulfilled – opening with the grandstand sloganeering of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, buoyed by Larry Mullen Jr’s pounding snare and The Edge’s nagging guitar riff, by the time Bono begins the uplifting refrain the polemic potency has washed over the audience. Equally spine-tingling is live staple ‘Bad’, a creeping slow-burner built on lingering percussion and The Edge’s hallmark guitar twinkles, an inimitable, echo-laden chime that has punctuated so many of the group’s hits.
If Bono is an adverse allergy, The Edge is perhaps the desired effect. He’s built a renowned reputation for his deceptive, but dextrous, fretwork, and throughout the gig there are moments – sometimes surprisingly swift, sometimes suitably bombastic – where his melodic muscularity causes open-mouthed appreciation. The ringing arpeggio that bleeds into the rumbling ‘With Or Without You’, the four-stroke fury of ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ and the big-hearted solo of ‘One’ are just three examples of his mastery.
The band as a whole, though, do come close to creating spine-tingling segments. ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is sublime in its subtlety, an arms-aloft jangle that goes for the jugular. The long-mothballed ‘Trip Through Your Wires’ is powered by Bono’s lacerating harmonicas, and, natch, the pivotal moment where The Edge’s strongest signature riff interrupts the gentle organ throb of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’. Even latter-day song ‘Elevation’ is positively thrilling in its silly pomp. It’s fantastic, masterfully executed and lingers long in the memory.
But herein lies the problem. Perfection in live music rarely makes for a perfect experience. For all those aforementioned moments, and for all the thousands of ardent fans shouting back every word, it was too slick, too perfect and, consequently, too out-of-reach. The Joshua Tree was never, ever going to be played in anything other than a stadium, but as a result that deep connection is never truly felt. At least at their infamous Glastonbury performance, there was struggle and doubt that made them more human (as well as a ferocious ‘The Fly’, sadly missing tonight).
Witnessing U2 live is certainly something to tick off the life list, but like all bands that live within stadium rock, expect amazing things and you’ll only get something too perfect.