August 22nd 2009 and Cardiff resembles a war zone and not just because of the heartwarming scenes of mass jubilation at the safe return of the parading Royal Welsh battalion from Afghanistan. No, picking your way through the brutally ugly roadworks around the city centre you can’t help notice that a sizeable proportion of people heading towards the stadium are, well, arseholed. For those that manage to stay on their feet however they are in for a treat as Cardiff is treated to a setlist which could bring a tear to the eye of U2 fans of a certain vintage. OK, old people like me.
Not that you’d think it from the band’s arrival at the home of Welsh football, and that other sport with the oval ball, as it is a non-stop salvo of brand new material. Clearly such self-indulgence fails to trouble the huge crowd which seethes under the incredible, monumental ‘claw’ stage set which has to be experienced to be believed. Bono has taken some stick for the environmental footprint of the tour but, give the guy some credit, he knows how to entertain the public. Arriving onstage to the tune of Bowie’s Space Oddity the band launch into Breathe, a song whose title possibly represents a word of advice to the hordes of women in front of me who’ve been hyperventilating at the thought of Bono getting within touching distance.
The stage may be vast but it is cleverly done and the lack of clutter enables the band to throw some epic rock poses and, rather than look dwarfed in their surroundings, appear like giants amongst us mere mortals. The bombast of some of their music and the political meddling of the lead singer serve to place U2 in a bracket often sneered at by the hip and happening but here in the middle of the hurricane it is impossible to resist. This is stadium rock taken to its absolute apex and it is so far away from an indie club gig that it is facile to compare the experiences; the answer is to enjoy it for what it is in the same way that you might occasionally dig a Mel Gibson blockbuster.
Get On Your Boots brings yet more excitement as the two walkway bridges flanking the stage shift to the front allowing Edge and Adam to get really close to the fans and throw some shapes which induce another bout of hyperventilation from the ladies in the inner circle. Before leading into the well, magnificent Magnificent Bono starts reciting some place names, eliciting pockets of cheering from around the Stadium. Pontypridd, Caerphilly, Cardiff… he continues and I half expect him to follow up with your boyos took a hell of a beating but sadly not although we do ultimately get a mini rendition of the Welsh National Anthem. Beautiful Day essentially puts a cap on the stadium rock experience, representing probably the ultimate in synapse bursting excess and familiarity which draws a line under the opening section of the show. From here the focus of crowd pleasing becomes less the stunning spectacle of just being here through to appeasing the nostalgia fix that any band with a 30 year history will always generate.
The first shock of the evening is the rare inclusion in the set of The Unforgettable Fire, I’ve seen U2 a few times over the years but this is the first time in ages they’ve pulled this one out of the bag, let alone MLK which is also dropped casually into the set. Sunday Bloody Sunday may not have the painful, visceral impact it once had but remains a majestic piece of work which cannot even be diminished by the unnecessary tacking on of Oliver’s Army. The closing section of the show is, the dreadful Walk On excepted, largely reserved for the real blockbuster material. Where the Streets… and With or Without You complete the holy trinity of singles from The Joshua Tree and any disappointment experienced by the omission of Bullet the Blue Sky is dispelled by the devastatingly beautiful performance of Bad. This is inevitable tailed with a crowd rendition of 40 which, as ever, sends a shiver up the spine.
There’s no denying that the antics of Bono make it very easy to dismiss U2 as artistically irrelevant, but experiencing them in their natural environment certainly tests even the hardest cynic’s resolve. Constantly reinventing themselves and with a musical canon most bands would die for they refuse to rest on their laurels. The show ends as it began, with material from their latest album. It is hard to imagine where they might go from here but the beauty of U2 is that Bono has already told us:
I will sing, sing a new song
Words & Pictures: Steve Burnett