Sunday 20 January 2019

Saturday Night Fever: Bono in excelsis - U2 at the 3Arena was the gig of the year

The gig of the year? No competition on that score. Without doubt it was U2 at the 3Arena in Dublin, writes Barry Egan

Bono: 'One of the greatest performers in the history of music'
Bono: 'One of the greatest performers in the history of music'
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

What a difference six months makes. I was at the opening night of U2's eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE, tour at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in May. In parts it was a hostile crowd, hopped up on their messiah with his shock of hair - Trump not Bono.

During Pride (In the Name of Love), with images of the great Martin Luther King Jr up on giant screens alongside images of the not-so-great morons shouting hate at rallies in Charlottesville, some of the crowd were clearly not happy at what they were seeing. Tulsa was still an incredible show but there was something very unsettling about seeing some of the alt.right racist Neanderthals who were at the concert.

I don't know how to describe it, really. Bono and the rest of U2 seemed almost defiant in the face of playing to a vaguely Trump crowd. It was a weird concert.

U2's homecoming shows at the 3Arena in November were something different entirely. It was nice, in a good way, and very powerful and emotional; not in a preachy way. Tracks like Lights Of Home, Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way ("So young to be the words of your own song/ I know the rage in you is strong/ Write a world where we can belong/ To each other and sing it like no other') and Get Out of Your Own Way ("Nothing is stopping you but what is inside, I can help you but it is your fight./ Your fight!"), to say nothing of New Year's Day or, of course, One, perhaps show us how we get to carry each other in this world.

Bono, when he gets going is one of the greatest singers and performers in the history of popular music. He has the charisma of Muhammad Ali and Elvis combined when the mood takes him. Sometimes he goes too far with the heavy-handedness. But then he is only human, despite his belief to the contrary perhaps.

U2 have always been intense, but their shows haven't always been spiritual much as they would have liked them to be. The final night of the 3Arena shows in Dublin had spirituality in spades. Bono made it sound so personal too, while guiding us with his insight into the human condition through the songs like Lights Of Home and Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way. These are personal psalms to the power of love, from the Gospel According To Bono. And I mean that in a positive way.

I've said this before, but it is worth repeating: the obsession with beating down Bono is as Irish as a Tayto sandwich.

"I'll walk into the pub and some old guy will go, 'Larry, yer man Bono, he's a f*****g eejit'," Larry Mullen Jr told Q Magazine in 2004. The truth is closer to: Bono is not a f*****g eejit. He never sings words like "I don't believe in an interventionist God"; he finds other ways. They are usually interesting ways too. It draws you towards something bigger sometimes in the same way that the music of Dylan or Cohen or Bowie or Sinead O'Connor or Nina Simone does.

Seeing U2 in concert on a great night makes you get lost in something powerful inside your body for a few hours and it is up to you what you want to do with it after that.

In 2008, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, gave a compelling lecture about the place of faith in secular society, which he referenced Bono and Bono's remark that he was "not into religion. I am completely anti-religious. Religion is a term for a collection, a denomination. I am interested in personal experience of God".

Williams said that this remark "elegantly sums up a view that has become increasingly widespread in Britain and in much of contemporary Northern Europe: substantial numbers of people identify themselves in questionnaires and surveys as 'spiritual but not religious'.

"While the spiritual may be a resource for health, even for 'capital' (as in the title of a recent book by Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall, Spiritual Capital: Wealth We Can Live By, Bloomsbury 2004), the 'religious' is seen as ambivalent at best, dangerous at worst."

Bono and U2 did convey a massive spiritual punch at the 3Arena on that Saturday night back in November without asking us to go to Mass the following morning. The power is in the music, of course, courtesy of The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr and Adam Clayton.

That beautiful night in the 3Arena they played a lot of songs from their best album, Achtung Baby (right behind The Joshua Tree), and a good few from their best album in years, 2017's Songs of Experience, the follow-up to 2014's Songs of Innocence. U2 are still the greatest band in the world as seekers of that rare glimpse of existential truth.

Long may they seek on our behalf. Be that as it may, there is a sense that we are being taken on a musical journey with U2 now.

Who knows where it will end? Or even if it has ended?

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