Monday 19 November 2018

U2 Live: Is it time for a break from the old routine?

Reviewer James Hall checked out U2's performance at the O2 in London last week - and was ultimately underwhelmed

Bono on stage.
Bono on stage.

Can you have too much of a good thing? U2 are currently on their third world tour in four years, and this O2 show was their 184th since May 2015.

In a recent newspaper interview, drummer Larry Mullen said that people "could do with taking a break from us and vice-versa". On the basis of this concert, and despite its jaw-dropping spectacle, it was hard not to conclude that he may be right.

The north Dubliners' current Experience + Innocence tour is an updated companion piece to their 2015's Innocence + Experience tour. As with those shows, this one was dominated by the extraordinary "barricage", a 29m-long free-floating catwalk wedged between two 7m-tall translucent ultra-HD video walls.

The show opens with Charlie Chaplin's final impassioned speech in The Great Dictator - "We have lost the way" - as archive footage of devastation and blitzkrieg slowly gave way to snippets of the Berlin Wall coming down, Martin Luther King giving a speech and teenagers raving in the late Eighties. You couldn't have conjured a more "U2 moment" if you'd donned bug-eyed sunglasses and Cuban heels, adopted a Dublin accent, met a US President and broke into a rendition of 'Beautiful Day'.

As the video faded, strobes revealed the group inside the catwalk. Obscured by the screens, the living band looked like holograms, a neat subversion of the current trend for dead stars to be rendered real by clever technology. It was hard not to feel the goosebumps rise as Bono, in fine voice, tore into 'The Blackout' from last year's Songs of Experience album.

What followed was essentially a series of capsules representing U2's past and present. We had "stripped down" U2 performing first single 'I Will Follow' on a simply-lit main stage. We had flashes of PopMart's pop art and we had a huge dollop of Achtung Baby, with Bono reviving that era's MacPhisto character, and a particularly meaty and exhilarating rendition of 'The Fly'. Throughout, Bono was refreshingly self-effacing when talking about the band's 42-year career.

What we didn't get, however, were any songs from The Joshua Tree, the band having played the 1987 album in its entirety on a 52-date, 15-country tour last year. But songs such as 'With or Without You' have been the backbone of U2's set for decades. Their absence made the show slightly feel like being served an omelette with the eggs removed.

Instead, we got seven new songs, such as 'Lights of Home'. Rather than killing Bono's appetite to perform, it seems that a brush with mortality a few years ago (he hasn't given details) has increased his confessional streak. But I'd still have preferred 'Where the Streets Have No Name'.

U2 remain one of music's great live draws. They combine boundary-pushing stage sets with incredible showmanship. But this doesn't mean that fatigue can't set in, for fans and possibly for the band alike. Too often, this show merely flew where it might have soared; at one point, Bono even fluffed the lines to 'One'. U2 are one hell of a gang, but every gang occasionally needs time out.

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