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U2 - 360 Tour - Opening Night - Barcelona - Camp Nou - 30 June 2009   Print  E-mail 
Written by Mark Reed  
Thursday, 02 July 2009

U2 are to be applauded if for nothing else but for at least trying something new. Magnificent.


The problem with a stadium show is that it's all one way. The audience faces the stage, the band faces the audience, and there is nothing else. This enormous stage shrinks in distance, and the energy projected both ways – to, and from, the stage – is lost. In one way, the band and audience are vampires – feeding off each other.

When stadium rock shows have been a part of the modern cultural experience for so long, what can you do to make it interesting? What can you do to make it even vaguely novel?

U2
have done this before : after all, it is just four blokes on a stage playing some songs. In some ways this is the most boring thing in the world, and so the trick is to try and use smoke, mirrors, and the tricks of the trade to create a show in which the music is just a fraction or the whole, where the specatcle is in itself an experience, and the music becomes a soundtrack, and where the sound is part of this, but not all.



On the other hand, it could just be that in order to try and keep the audience and the band interested, you try something new. And nobody has ever seen anything quite like this.

The nearest comparison I can think of is PopMart in space : a vast and limitless reimagining of the use of space, but also, a space ship. The Claw, as it is, I think of more as a mothership : so huge, so alien, and so revolutionary it is in a bold use of colour, shape and design. And in this way, then, U2 are astronauts (or Popnauts, if you want), taking the bold and brazen brass balls of the past, ditching the earnest lecturing – almost – and going off boldly into a new direction. With the idea of there being, in tune with the album, “No Line On The Horizon”, the theme of 360 is that of Space. There is no line, no horizon, in the cosmos, just an immersive, surrounding, everything. Later, this is reinforced with a live satellite video linkup to a space station, and a relatively discreet environemntal theme, that goes beyond debt and hunger to something far bigger : there is no Planet B we can decamp to when the Earth is a husk.

As the band rightly point out, the carbon footprint of this might be quite large, but the spiritual rewards to the audience of this are those that enhance a life. For if all life was were bread and water, then there would be no life, nothing to lift mankind above the amoeba.



Aside from all other things, when U2 do a tour, first and foremost, they're selling the experience of the music. That's what they started off doing – playing music – and now that they have grown to be CEO's of an enormous business that has, in business speak, diversified into fashion and art and logistics, film making, video games, and everything else that comes with it, sometimes the music takes a back seat.

And tonight, the first night of their first tour in four years and the live premiere of the new, revolutionary 360 degree staging, is a night where, for the first time in the world, everything happens. It's all new. Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen, or how, or even what songs. There rumours, and yes, the band have been reheasring not only most of the new album, premiering “No Line On The Horizon”, but also revisiting songs that have been dormant for 25 years or longer. With such a vast catalogue of songs – there are about 240 originals and a multitude fo covers and collaborations – the question is now how to keep it fresh. Sure, you could go out there and endlessly trot out “New years Day”, “Bullet The Blue Sky”, “Mysterious Ways” and countless others as a tired, boring, predictable global jukebox : repeating the same moves, the same arrangements, as a touring, ancient pension fund, offering nothing but familarity and probably a big lump of nostalgia.



Thankfully, this is none of that. For the first time, this is a stadium show in the round, with the inventive, Gaudi-esque Claw that suspends the amplifiers and lights in mid air, and a video screen that moves, expands, changes shape and dimensions as well as a set of rotating bridges that allow the band an almost complete field of movment. With a height twice that of any previous pop staging (The Claw is 164 feet tall and the width of the pitch), the artificial divide of stage and audience is removed with an inventive and democratic staging that constantly involves and amuses.

Not only that, but at last, U2 seem content to retire the warhorses. Yes, some of the biggest and best songs are present : “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is still a po-faced call to arms, “Pride” a lecture on the evils of war and death (and if you don't know those are very bad things, you shouldn't be anywhere near most of humanity, to be honest). But also there are many songs missing : but they ar enot missed. “New Years Day” has been a staple for the past quarter century – at last it has been supercded. Same with “Bullet The Blue Sky”, which is – and always was – a tedious lecture from a man not half as clever as he thought he was, being King of The Bloody Obvious. There's no sign of “The Fly” or “Mysterious Ways” - but this is not necessarily any enormous loss.



And, after 30 years of this stuff, I suppose the motive is to make it interesting. When you have the millions, and the swimming pools and the private jets and the mansions, what's the reason? Ego? Money? What do you do after the first few dozen million? What can you buy with £200,000,000 that you can't get from £100,000,000? God knows. Why not just step back, and have a lifelong holiday?

Because.. if you're an artist, or a musician, music and art is what you do. I dare say that if U2 had never made it to the big league, and apexed forever at 2,000-3,000 seaters, they'd still be going along steadily, albeit in a more subdued way.It's a brave run then, to premier four songs live for the first time to 120,000 people under the glare of the world's media in front of one of the biggest stadium crowds in the world.



At 10.01pm, as the sun curls behind the lip of the stadium, the stadium plunges into darkness, and the sound of Bowies “Space Oddity” is cut short with a fake NASA Countdown. Bathed in white and white light, four Irish millionaires assemble from behind the audience and the drum rolls into “Breathe”. The reception is estatic – behind Dublin and New York, tonight's opener is probably the most travelled – and anticipated show on the tour : there are t-shirts from thirty years ago here, and from every continent they have appeared on, Australia to South America to Canada. Then The Edge opens a can of guitars, Bono preens and pirouettes as he learns the vocabulary of this tour, and the staging unfurls. And what staging : live video is manipulated and distorted through a moving, ever changing video screen, and the light is used in a way that even now, is the most impressive I have ever seen : a stadium from blinding light to silence and darkness in the fraction of second, to a catheral of light reaching to the heavens during the finale.

The perception is that U2 are on the ropes now, with a 'poor' selling 5,000,000 shifting album and low charting singles (given that they barely release singles, this is no surprise) is misguided. Perhaps one of the most undernoticed elements is not that U2 play, but how the audience plays with U2. The tiny humanitarian dwarf that is Bono by instinct throws his hands around to garner cheers, which seems to work, but this not an adulation for him – I don't know anyone, even some of their keener fans – that do not regard him as at least 50% prat and bore, but more a recognition of the emotions within the people here these songs unleash. These people aren't cheering the band, but the way a guitar solo or a chorus makes them feel. (At least some of them have flown a very long way to get drunk and fall over mind you).



With every step there is some invention : “The Unforgettable Fire” returns for the first time since January 1990, “Ultraviolet” since August 1993, and “Angel Of Harlem”, “In A Little While” and “MLK” all reappear after years away ; and even if the songs sound mostly the same – albeit that “I'll Go Crazy” is reworked from a hangover to a late disco stompin' 'choon', - everything seems viewed through a different lens, if it is the perspective of history. When the screen contracts and stretches as a concertina, resembling some kind of ancient lantern, and the lighting is set to an epileptic recreation of a nuclear explosion in “The Unforgettable Fire”, the effect is not just at the level of an emotional or intellectual truth but some kind of cerebral, thematic whole – everything connects in everything, and if a butterly flaps its wings over there, then, well, an erection falls down in a forest and if there's nobody there to hear it, does it really happen?

There is a sense of tired obligation during “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride” (these songs have always been over-rated, and whilst they are good, repetition has numbed them to predictable ennui after the first several hundred performances). Even “Where The Streets Have No Name” is a little unimaginative, but the audience response is akin to a modern day sermon – rapturous in knowing and preaching to the converted.

Still, it can't be an opening night without something going wrong. Bono's voice edges towards dry and raspy at the end of the show with the 100 degree heat and the humid air, and the band lose their place several times during “One” as monitors fail. It's a shambolic, spirited mess carried through to the end by a force of will. At one point, Bono – in a rare moment of clarity – barks “Edge. Listen to me, let's start again” as he jabs his ears to try and ear the music. A minute later, the band improvise an extra few bars as Bono realises he's forgotten his guitar and strums at it playfully. (Madonna wouldn't stand for this kind of shit and fire someone : U2 laugh it off and keep going).



The encore sees Bono is a suit of lights tarzanning around the stage as he belts out “Ultraviolet” (an under-rated gem towards the end of 'Achtung Baby',) as a modern day perverse Sinatra, singing with a passion and vigour as ever, hanging like a monkey from a microphone suspended from the ceiling. The evening ends on a subdued note with “With or Without You” (mostly spoken) but a delicately bittersweet statement of love, hate and love, and the final premiere of the night - “Moment of Surrender” which is (perhaps a little cynically) designed to send the audience away chanting the wordless instrumental refrain. Maybe they've been doing this too long. A u2 show is something someone should experience at least once in their life : U2 make more sense this way than any other.

As opening nights go, Barcelona was slick and inventive, imaginative and original, a spectacle and an exciting next phase. Quite where they go from here is anyone's guess, but 360 is the way to go. As original and brilliant as “PopMart”, as thrilling as anything they've ever done, if U2 keep at this level of imagination, they will buck the trend of their contemporaries and remain relevant until the end of their journey. Everyone goes on about how The Beatles were the best band ever, but that's nostalgia talking. The future is where we're spending the rest of our lives, if there must be a biggest band in the world, better it be U2 than anyone else. 360 is at least the equal of anything they have done before – maybe better. Only time will tell. But for now, U2 deserve their mantle at the top of the tree. Certainly far less talented bands have been lauded more, and now, when the lucrative and easy option is to be predictable and safe and not take risks, U2 are to be applauded if for nothing else but for at least trying something new.



Magnificent.

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