Masters of their Art - U2, Croke Park 2017
The significance of a U2 show in their hometown of Dublin cannot be lost on any U2 fan. Whenever U2 'come home' there is a palpable flurry of nostalgia, excitement and bonhomie. Of course only 3/4 of the band members are sleeping in their own beds this night...but why let the truth get in the way of a charming and romantic story, eh? This is Dublin after all. Add into the mix that the U2 machine consistently added dates to the tour in all cities, except Dublin, and the show becomes even more special. Time passes; the show grows ever nearer. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds are added to the bill. Incidentally, Noel is on record saying that this is the most enjoyable tour he has ever been on. High praise considering he has had a 25 year career thus far. In addition, it is reported that the show will add an extra 12 million euros to the Irish economy and tickets have exchanged hands for thousands. This was destined to be a special night. The evening at Croker is cool. Small grey clouds fleck the blue evening sky. The huge golden screen sports a giant grey joshua tree to the centre left. To the right, poetry scrolls up in clear white writing as the excitable crowd wait in anticipation for their heroes, due at 8.30pm. Like all good rock bands however, U2 are slightly late. The crowd swarms to the right of the stage in a false alarm, clearly an incorrect heads up that they are on their way. More time passes. More poetry, more electric tension. As the clock ticks towards 9pm the PA bursts into action for the 'Whole of the Moon' by the Waterboys. A singalong ensues for 80000 fans and it becomes clear the band are en route. After the relative calm, comes the storm. Larry Mullen enters, waits, stands, receiving the applause of his countrymen, before taking a seat on the makeshift stage in the centre of the crowd. A moment feels like a lifetime before the drum roll of 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' hits the chest and we're off. The Edge follows to the front, before Bono and Adam greet the jubilant crowd. The significance of this song, a fierce memoir to the lives lost at the bloody Sunday massacre, at this venue, is not lost on me nor on the band who perform the song intensely. Arms reach to the sky, words roar through the venue. 'New Years Day' follows close behind with no fanfare, video or flashing lights. This is a rock band at their best, enjoying the simplicity of just playing. 'Bad' and 'Pride' make up the band's small stage set and as the last note of 'Pride' rings out across the sky and it became clear something incredibly special was about to happen. The blank golden screen faded to a deep blood red and the magical opening to 'Streets' began. More poignantly, the band stood as a four some, together, as Edge's now legendary guitar rang like a bell across the Irish night sky. Larry sits and begins the drum roll. Bono gets in position and as the song reached its magical crescendo, the screen bursts into life with a majestic desert scene. It was a bizarre and powerful moment, as if time had stopped and 30 years had not passed since the release of this genre - defying album. I stood in complete awe of what I was witnessing as if it were the first time I had heard the song. I was sure I was not the only one. A tear rolled down my cheek. Again, I was not the only one. As the song got into full flow, three planes flew over the stadium leaving behind the orange, white and green of the flag in its wake. The Joshua Tree was played in order and a sing along of 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' segued into a beautiful rendition of 'With or Without You.' This is the sixth time I have seen U2 and despite appreciating the timelessness of these songs I have in many sets, been able to take or leave them, but not tonight.
The truth is in a Trump-era, post Brexit Western World, these songs of love and beauty mean more than perhaps they did at the time they were released. In addition, as Bono has stated in interviews, the band now know how to play them. Marry this with a quite brilliant series of accompanying videos, curated by lifelong collaborator, Anton Corbijn and we have a magical mix. 'Here comes trouble,' announces Bono as 'Bullet the blue sky's' opening bars thunder out across Dublin. Still a tour de force of stocatto, breathy vocals and firebombing guitars, but this time the sound is more experienced, more accomplished. There is the relative respite of 'Running to Stand Still' and 'Red Hill Mining Town' before 'In God's Country's' brief appearance, played to a backdrop of a 3D technicolor Joshua tree. 'Trip through your Wires' was surprisingly impressive, Bono taking up harmonica duties for this one and then onto a beautiful rendition of 'One Tree Hill,' dedicated to U2s roadie and friend craig.... The real highlight for me though was 'Exit.' Brutal, uncompromising and claustrophobic in sound and visual as the band take measured shots at the Trump administration; Edge's searing guitar threatening, Bono's vocal pleading. Within a heartbeat we are back in the room for 'Mother's of the Disappeared' and the boys are off, leaving the audience a few moments to try and gather themselves and appreciate this little piece of history they are witnessing. 'Miss Sarajevo' follows shortly after, and Bono becomes very Bono, giving a metaphoric passport to a 15-year old Syrian, by passing her enlarged picture across the croke park crowd. Crowd pleasers follow: 'Vertigo,' 'Elevation' and 'Beautiful Day;' the latter once again a mesmerising experience, where the audio and visual unite in a 4D rainbow of positive emotion. 'Ultraviolet,' a personal favourite, is dedicated to herstory i.e. powerful women of the world, due a backdrop of pink and a list of the many women who have helped to make our world a better place. Time is nearly up and cruel reality awaits outside the warm comfort of the honed U2 live package. I think that is the truth of it. The band are literally at the peak of their powers; a phrase I don't use lightly, as it is by many a journo, gleefully over excited by the memory of a decent gig. This show was different. I am a lucky boy and have been to a few, but I had never felt anything so spiritually atoning as what I saw in Dublin. Perhaps it is me and I was ready for this beautiful experience.Or perhaps it was U2, a band who for many years have been ahead of the game when it comes to live performance. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had watched a band who had mastered the art.