U2 at the 3Arena: The BIG review - what worked and what didn't at the band's homecoming gig
It’s as emotive a moment as you will ever see at a U2 show. Bono kneels on the ramp that stretches out from the stage and sings about his mother. ‘Iris (Hold Me Close)’ is devastatingly raw, especially when one considers that it’s a grown man singing about the loss he still feels 40-odd years after a brain aneurysm robbed him of the first woman in his life.
The experience is heightened by the striking audiovisuals that show Iris as a young bride, perfectly oblivious that her time on earth would be cut short one September day in 1974.
U2 are back on a Dublin stage for the first time since the summer 2010 and they’re armed with the most personal album they’ve ever recorded. ‘Iris (Hold Me Close)’ is the album’s emotional centrepiece and so too is it tonight. Anyone who lost a parent - especially a mother - at a young age will know of the pain that Bono conveys. But there’s celebration too, because her death helped set him on the road to what he would become.
The best bits of a largely triumphant homecoming are not the obvious hits of the past but close-to-the-bone Dublin songs that inform latest album Songs of Innocence. Songs like ‘Cedarwood Road’ the Glasnevin street where Bono grew up and which Bono ‘walks’ down in one of the most audacious pieces of concert theatre imaginable.
While much has been made about U2 stripping back the pyrotechnics on this Innocence + Experience tour, there’s still plenty of bells and whistles including a lengthy ‘cage’ that they band can play inside while visuals are transmitted on its walls - and it’s this contraption that Bono walks down time and again while singing of his childhood street and how “you can’t return to where you never left”.
Another standout is provided by ‘Raised by Wolves’, the song that looks back to another 1974 day - the May Friday when three bombs ripped the centre of Dublin apart. It’s potent and powerful and finishes with a simple message on the screen urging ‘Justice of the Forgotten’.
Bono jokes early on that this is the first time in nine months on the road where he doesn’t have to explain what the northside of Dublin is and one feels there’s an extra charge in his delivery when it comes to these songs of love, loss and dashed innocence.
The show begins with minimal stage design - just a large light bulb above the stage - and it’s been a very long time since home-town crowds have got to see U2 as simply as this. In fact, they haven’t played indoors in Ireland since 1989 - during the Lovetown tour which called here in its former incarnation as The Point. A pair of songs from debut album Boy - The Electric Co and Out of Control are giddy and brilliant - but a more recent offering, Vertigo, is sandwiched between them and fails to connect. Somehow, it feels terribly slight.
It’s not the only time the band struggle to connect with their audience. ‘Invisible’ - with each of the four playing in the ‘cage’ - is especially weak. It’s a very different story when Bono stands on the secondary stage in the middle of the auditorium and sings a plaintive version of ‘Every Breaking Wave’ with a minimal accompaniment by The Edge on piano.
One of the failures of this show - and it might be specifically related to this venue (as they’ve had to reconfigure their set-up somewhat - is the division between the band. All too often Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen are left playing their instruments on the main stage while Bono and the Edge go roaming on the runway. For a band that pride itself on being such a tight unit, it feels strangely disconnected.
There’s no fear of that on a remarkable rendition of ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’, which is prefaced by aerial footage of a decimated Kobani, Syria, shot this year. It’s a moment for Edge to showcase his trademark guitar playing and he doesn’t disappoint.
A hashtag urging Europe to accept refugees is emblazoned on the screen and the message is reinforced by a cleverly retooled ‘Zooropa’. Then it’s a race down memory lane to three of the biggest songs in the U2 canon - ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’ and ‘With or Without You’.
The encore isn’t as spine-tingling as those they’ve done in the past although 14,000 people singing ‘One’ will last in the memory. Bono barely has to sing a line such is the delivery of the crowd from the first note.
Next year, U2 will celebrate 40 years together and there aren’t many other bands who’ve been going as long who whose concerts will centre quite as much on winning new material. Chances are many who see U2 over the four nights in Dublin will be encouraged to listen to Songs of Innocence with fresh ears. As it was controversially released free of charge into the iTunes libraries of all Apple customers, the talk was more on the method of delivery than the actual music. But it’s been a long time since a U2 tour made the new songs so utterly fundamental to the experience.
Despite the highs, there are signs of the band fraying at the edge. It’s hard to imagine that the quartet will be happy with the way ‘Even Better than the Real Thing’ and ‘Elevation’, for instance, are performed tonight.
But anyone who doubts the band’s ability to silence an auditorium as big as this with the power of song needs to be there when Bono sings in tribute to his mother. It’s a U2 moment to savour. They’ve still got it, you know.