Review: Barry Egan at U2's opening night of Innocence + Experience in Vancouver
A SLUMBERING giant awoke last night near the snow-capped Grouse Mountains in Canada.
Or to put it another way, U2 came back to the world stage last night in front of 20,000 fans at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
It was not quite the return of four all-conquering superheroes but more like four men who have been through the wars before coming out the other side... with a brilliant new album that got denigrated.
The brilliance of the current Songs of Innocence album was obscured by the PR disaster that was the iTunes download debacle.
"Divisive" wouldn’t begin to describe it.
So U2 had a lot to prove last night.
Fail on this tour and U2 would be looking at a fatal loss of relevancy.
So no pressure, then.
Would Bono - after his dreadful accident in Central Park last November - be able to cut it as a performer?
No longer jumping Jack Flash - more limping hack trash. No longer the young Dub who jumped down off the stage at Live Aid during Bad … now a battered 55 year old man held together by surgical pins, like a rock-star Frankenstein.
The answer to most of the above questions is, mercifully, that U2 – on the basis of what they did on stage last night in Canada – have no worries about the future.
They opened at 9pm with a blitzkrieg bop version of The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone), which was quickly followed by Out Of Control.
“We’re a band from the Northside of Dublin,” Bono told Canada, introducing the song “This is one of our first singles [released in 1980]."
I’m glad to say that Ballymum boyo Bono still rocks like a beautiful bastard. After Out Of Control, they segued into Vertigo then an unsurprisingly emotive, even empowering, I Will Follow.
“A boy tries hard to be a man
His mother takes him by his hand
If he stops to think he starts to cry
Oh why,” he sang of his late mother.
And U2, with one of the greatest back-catalogues of songs from any band in the world, still have the power to move the listener to tears – both of joy and sadness.
When Bono et al are at full throttle, as they are on Until The End Of The World and Bullet The Blue Sky, the very walls of Rogers Arena seem to shake with the excitement of it all. It is at times like these when you realise just how magical these four fellas from the Northside of Dublin actually are. And why they are such a big part of our lives – and the zeitgeist.
So it would be a grave mistake to write off U2 as a music entity just because you don’t like a) U2 moving their tax affairs to Holland, b) Bono once shaking George Bush’s hand or c) that Bono has more money than you or I.
U2's Innocence + Experience is certainly not a normal rock show. Take That it certainly isn’t.
Advance reports indicated that it would be an autobiographical piece of rock theatre that owed more to Beckett than Bowie.
And yes, the opening image of the show is a single light bulb swinging forlornly inside Bono’s bedroom as a teenager at 10 Cedarwood Road in Dublin's Finglas/Ballymum, but it is all rather compelling.
Bono sings on Cedarwood Road, the sixth song into the set last night: "You can’t return to where you never left. I’m still standing on that street."
Unless you have a heart of stone, this is all quite moving.
It is here inside Bono’s bedroom that we will hear young Paul Hewson listen to the records - courtesy of Joey Ramone and The Clash among many others - that made him want to be a singer called Bono. There is plenty of dark psychoanalysis of Bono’s youth, not least on the emotionally lacerating Iris (Hold Me Close), where the U2 singer sings about the moment his life crumbled to dust when he was 14: his mother Iris died.
So far, so bleak.
So far, so Beckett.
As Bono half-joked in an interview with The New York Times last week, “People will walk out into the aisles not buying T-shirts but having counselling, and wondering, ‘Where did the fun go?’”
In reality, there was plenty of fun last night in Vancouver. Mysterious Ways, followed by Desire and The Sweetest Thing had everyone in the audience showing their allegiances.
Bullet The Blue Sky was magnificent, as was – as ever – Sunday Bloody Sunday followed by the overwhelming raw power of Raised By Wolves. Pride of course, was a defining moment of the night. There was no songs, perhaps understandably, from the last album No Lines On The Horizon.
It was an incredible night in Canada. (And I say this having seen U2 in concert in Miami, New York, Boston, LA, Paris, Rotterdam, Glasgow, Prague, San Francisco , Rome, London, to name a few of their gigs, over the years.)
Any fears that U2 were putting on an over-reaching and pretentious rock opera heavy on concept and low on emotion are dismissed as soon as Bono bursts into the singular beauty of tonight's opener The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) .
Every one of the 20,000 in the audience are bopping along to the sonic splendor of U2’s punk homage with Bono singing – and the audience singing the words back to him – “I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred: heard a song that made sense out of the world.”
The crowd are held in thrall to every “wooah” from Bono, every soaring guitar riff from The Edge, every beat from Larry begin the kit and every whoosh from Adam’s bass-lines.
The crowd also hang on Bono’s every word like he is their personal Jesus.
The songs set forth Bono’s personal criteria of spiritual longing - restless search even.
The images (of Guggi on a horse, of the Dublin bombings of 1974 ) are even more powerful when it is set against the songs. Raised by Wolves shone with a beautiful sadness. But nothing compared to the terrible beauty of Iris (Hold Me Close.)
He introduced the song by saying if you are can’t discuss the past then you are stuck in the past. “This is for you, Iris,” the boy inside the man Bono said.
In the darkness of the vast arena last night, Bono then sang:
That gives us light
Has been gone a while
But it’s not an illusion
In my heart
Is so much a part of who I am
Something in your eyes
Took a thousand years to get here
It was like Bono was singing to his late mum, as much to God, for deliverance.
Everyone in Rogers Arena last night was transported to a different world as Bono sang these words. I’m sure Larry Mullen was at that exact moment thinking of his late father, who died last weekend in Dublin.
Last night in Vancouver it was a night for reflection – and dancing, as U2, lest we forget, have some cracking tunes.
As the title of the show Innocence + Experience suggests, this is not Cats. This is a show that comes with a narrative about the human condition. It is far from French existentialism that Bono was reared but if this show is about anything, it is as much about the meaning of death (of mothers, of victims of bombings, of dreams) as it is about life.
(Before the show I listened at the hotel to California (There is No End to Love), where Bono sings "I’ve seen for myself/There’s no end to grief", is a kick to the heart. It said it all. They didn't play it at the show.)
The first half of show is called Innocence.
There was be an interval, something of a first for a U2 show. Then the second half saw U2 walk down a giant walkway to the opposite end of the arena to play the second part of the show, which was called Experience. (I hope you're all paying attention at the back. Because I'll be asking questions at the end.)
360, U2’s last concert tour from 2009 through 2011, earned the band an eye-watering €653 million in ticket sales from playing stadiums globally to crowds of upwards of 80,000.
Innocence + Experience is a much more stripped-back affair, with U2 playing indoor venues to dramatically smaller crowds.
Be that as it may, for the last few days on the eve of their Innocence and Experience world tour U2 have owned Vancouver. Irish bars downtown are full of U2 fans celebrating Bono, Larry, The Edge and Adam in their midst.
On Thursday morning, the group from Ireland was on the front page of Canada's Globe & Mail newspaper under the headline, How Long Must They Sing This Song?
The truth is, thousands of people have travelled from all over the world (some even sleeping on the pavement outside Rogers Arena here in Vancouver to get the best view of the stage) to hear U2 sing their songs during a two hour show last night - and again tomorrow. They’ll get to see an incredible performance from a band that unapologetically refuse to fade from view.
The crowd gave them a standing ovation as the came off to With Or Without You.
Five minutes later, the band from the Northside of Dublin encored in Vancouver with City Of Blinding Lights, Beautiful Day, Where The Streets Have No Name and Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.
In short, the best U2 gig I’ve ever been to. See you in Dublin at Christmas, Bono.