herald

Friday 19 April 2019

U2 - Rock elevated to a new level

SHOWBIZ EVOLUTION: With their stunning 360 Tour, Bono and the boys have pushed the boundaries of stadium rock'n'roll performance on to a whole new level of brilliance

The world loves rock'n'roll. But, you know, since the ancient Greeks first perfected modern drama, ambitious performers have gone the extra yard for theatrical presentation. It's evolution, showbiz style.

When it was decided to stage a concert in Hawaii that would be the first to be televised around the globe, Elvis Presley demanded a spectacular new jumpsuit. It would be all white, have a cape and an eagle on the front.

Decades later Michael Jackson would plead with theatre director Trevor Nunn: "I want to be able to fly above the audience."

In Ireland, in the 1970s, a diminutive showband singer changed his name to Magic and fronted The Magic Band dressed in a suit that had a rows of twinkling electric light bulbs stitched into its seams.

Iconic

As he brightened up the ballroom scene, many established frontmen failed to keep their hair on.

Curiously, all three stars have since become ironic icons of our age.

This summer in Croke Park we have witnessed proof that the boundaries of pop presentation have yet again been pushed even further beyond expectation.

In an audacious piece of post-modern circus tomfoolery, Take That paraded a gigantic mechanical elephant from the halfway line on the Jones's Road pitch to the stage in front of Hill 16.

The audience gasped and warmly embraced the absurdity of the concept.

This weekend, for U2's encore, Bono donned a suit of flashing lights and the audience nodded knowingly.

The world loves rock'n'roll -- and of all the bands in all the gin-soaked stadia on the planet, U2 do stadium rock better than the rest. Even better than Take That.

Early on Friday morning, as the road crew sound-checked the band's instruments, I stood on an empty Hogan Stand and pondered Steve Martin's quip (at least I think it was Steve Martin): "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture."

U2's stage set, like an enormous Starck-designed lemon-squeezer and dubbed The Claw by the engineers who perfected it, jostled the band and their music for a place on the frontline of discussion and debate.

Even in an Ireland bamboozled by the wet dreams of avaricious property developers, this is an impressive piece of kit.

We've heard U2 play note-perfect versions of Sunday Bloody Sunday and With Or Without You a million times, but never mind the quality, feel the buzz of the towering lighting rig and that flashy video screen.

Like many of the inter-county teams who play Croke Park, U2's career has ebbed and flowed.

From the highs of The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby there have been the relatively under-achieving lows of Pop and Zooropa. The band's last concerts at Croke Park were marred by less-than-perfect sound, except if you were in front of stage.

Many critics have been less than enthusiastic about the band's recent album No Line On The Horizon.

Yet when we nailed our review to the mast here in the Herald, we noted that the album featured some blistering tracks that would work brilliantly at a stadium gig, as well as some slow-burn soulful songs that would eventually become U2 classics.

On Friday evening, from the opening Breathe to the closing Moment of Surrender, it was evident that we were right.

Until the 360 Tour, Michael Jackson and, possibly, heavy metal wizards Metallica have been the only artists to successfully transform an open-air stadium into an intimate venue. (I rule out the Boss because he bellows too much.)

From the moment Larry Mullen Jr kicked off Friday's show with his hypnotic urban cacophony, it was clear that U2 had the measure of their assignment.

The world loves rock'n'roll -- particularly when it has a pertinent social message.

And while Get On Your Sexy Boots might not rival Maggie's Farm, U2 can draw on (a virtual) Archbishop Desmond Tutu to introduce a song. And they embroider their set list with imagery suggested by conceptual artists Cathy Owens and Gavin Friday. It's a potent gumbo.

For visitors from overseas to celebrate U2 in the band's hometown is clearly an important landmark in their lives.

That they can be part of this high-end communal embrace is undoubtedly of personal cultural and emotional significance.

That we can share our U2 with them is something remarkable in its own right. And everyone one of us has our own U2 story to tell.

Jigsaw

This weekend we've seen how, like a team playing a crucial final, they've pulled it all together, with each member of the panel slotting into a jigsaw of pop excellence.

They've got the sound right. The musicianship and technology has been nigh-on perfect. And the frontman's spiel has been finely judged.

Their repertoire is studded with songs that have helped fashion the soundtrack of our lives.

And the band still plays them with an urgency that suggests they could have been written yesterday.

We can quibble. We can carp. But to what end? As artists, U2 haven't shortchanged themselves, or us.

Enjoying the spectacle of their 360 show is a bit like watching a TV reality show where they say, "And here are your best bits..."

Few design music that works when played in vast impersonal arenas. Fewer still make those draughty spaces seem almost domestic.

But as we watched Adam Clayton and The Edge stroll around opposite sides of Croke Park, like postmen delivering letters on Brookwood Avenue, while the imagery overhead danced like an Andy Warhol brainstorm, it seemed that U2 had finally tamed their inner behemoth.

This U2 presentation is now the benchmark of all future rock show excellence. I reckon the only thing missing was a cape.

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