I was a bit emotionally exhausted for a day or so afterwards. U2 shows tend to do that to me. When you see that band in person, they really take you on a ride. A proper, loud, brash, thoughtful, get-up-out-of-your-seat emotional rock and roll experience… and they do it to me every single time.
I started counting it up in my head as I lined up at gate 3. This would be the 5th time I’ve seen U2 live. The first two times were within a week of each other back in 1993, when the groundbreaking Zoo TV tour arrived in Melbourne at the MCG (where the sound was awful and I heard everything twice), and then I followed it up to Brisbane (where the sound – and therefore the overall experience – was spot on). The next time I saw them was in Sydney on the Vertigo tour in 2007, which was in my top 5 gigs of all time, and then again in Melbourne in 2010 when they brought that giant claw and plonked it in the middle of what was then called Etihad stadium. I was up close to the stage for that show and my ears were ringing for days afterwards. Totally worth it.
Then, last Friday night, after a nine year wait, U2 were back in Melbourne at the same venue, the recently rebranded Marvel stadium, this time on the Joshua Tree tour. The claw from the 2010 trip had been replaced by a screen four times the size of an IMAX screen. At the precise moment I set foot in the stadium, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds started playing Wonderwall, dwarfed by the aforementioned screen, and the crowd sang along heartily. The vibe of the night was already set.
One of many things I appreciated about this gig was the way it was structured. It started with a bunch of hits that pre-date the Joshua Tree, then the Joshua Tree album in full, followed by a selection of songs that were released post The Joshua Tree. Smart. Simple. Perfect.
During the first batch of early songs the screen stayed dark, gently and cleverly coercing the audience to focus solely on the four guys at the front and the way they play. I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and his theory that to be truly great at anything you need 10,000 hours of practise. This band probably has more like 100,000 hours under their collective belts by now, and you can hear it. Absolute synergy with a chaotic rock and roll heart. Watching them play without the aid of all that technological enhancement served to remind the audience that U2 are a damn fine rock and roll band who do not need to rely on any of that stuff to captivate an audience, but once they unleash their array of high tech toys… holy crap.
The first twenty minutes featured most of the songs you’d expect to hear more towards the end of a U2 show. Multiple musical gut punches… one, after another, after another… and that was before the big screen glowed red and crackled to life for their utterly transcendent performance of The Joshua Tree album. I particularly enjoyed some of the lesser known tracks off that album. Trip Through Your Wires, for example, is not a song I ever expected to see U2 perform live.
To say that the visuals were great for this part of the show would be an insane understatement. The band who re-imagined the possibilities of stadium shows with Zoo TV over a quarter of a century ago (yeah, it’s really been that long, I just checked ‘coz I didn’t believe it either) keep on reinventing the stadium show whilst at the same time making the experience feel… and I dunno how they pull this off… intimate. I don’t want to ruin the surprise for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but let’s just say that while they were playing Where The Streets Have No Name I found myself watching the screen a lot more than the band. In terms of staging, U2 are basically going up against themselves whenever they launch a new tour, because when it comes to the visuals no other stadium act on earth comes close to what these guys are up to. And that’s before you even factor in the extraordinary emotional charge of their songs.
The rain started falling, prompting Bono to insert a little bit of Singing In The Rain in between all those massive hits from The Joshua Tree and when I looked up ten minutes later (I was way too transfixed on the band and that massive screen to have noticed this any earlier) I realised that the roof of the stadium had been closed. Not only did this stop people on the ground from getting drenched, it had the added benefit of improving the sound considerably up in the stands where I was, to the point where it made me wonder why they didn’t just close the roof before the show started.
After The Joshua Tree, the last third of the show was party time. Even Better Than The Real Thing in particular sounded and looked absolutely spectacular, Vertigo and Beautiful Day went off, and Elevation was clearly written with a stadium singalong in mind, a purpose it serves incredibly well. I’m not generally the kind of guy who sings along at concerts, but there I was giving it my heartiest pretend falsetto: “Wooh-hooo, Wooh-hooh ooh!”
I have a theory about U2 which is based on nothing more than my own observations and gut feel. They look to me like a band that’s just about ready to announce either a long break, or their retirement. The last couple of albums haven’t really set the world on fire, they’ve got nothing left to prove, and like all of us they’re getting on a bit, so it seems to me that now would be a good time to call it quits, at least for a while. All the more reason you absolutely have to go and see the Joshua Tree tour before it leaves Australian shores if you get even half a chance.