U2 @ Manchester Arena, 19th October 2018

Beforehand I had prepared many things on which to base this review. One of which was going to suggest that U2 are all show and no substance. Or even U2 are like a pair of jogging bottoms (bear with me!)….You reach for them when you want something you know is going to be comfortable. I was also thinking of hanging my hat on the peg marked ‘greatest hits gig’. I was a fan in the early days and stayed with them right up to the album ‘Pop’ and to be honest I never really got back that childhood enthusiasm once they’d delivered that album. Perhaps tonight they might apologise to me…..

These days, as a punter, I don’t normally go to large ‘showy affairs’, I much prefer the more intimate gigs. So as I walked out into the arena to one of the two locations I had been allotted for the evening I did so with a sense that this might be a long evening. Particularly as I was to spend it on my own.

The stage setup was worthy of a whole paragraph of it’s own. The whole gig was staged in the round and the stage used almost the entire length of the arena floor. To one end of the oval arena floor was a rectangular stage and at the other end was a circular stage roughly 8 metres in diameter. The two were joined by a 2m wide walkway of about 30m in length. The entire PA system was suspended from the lighting track as was one of the biggest, if not the biggest screens I have ever seen. Research after the show tells me that it’s 20 tonnes of steel with double sided and transparent LED screen housing a walkway. There really was no hiding on this stage, no wings to walk back to, nothing. Just exposure. Brave.

As the house lights dimmed the huge screen flickered into life to the sound of a backing track ‘It’s a Beautiful World’ by Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds. The images on the screen were of a complete body MRI scan from head to foot then back to head again, the significance of which I suppose is the suggestion that inside we are all the same. The backing track then changed to Charlie Chaplin’s speech in ‘The Great Dictator’ a 1940 political satire where Chaplin played a ruthless facist dictator and a Jewish barber and which here played out over images showing various military dictatorships from around the second world war and pictures of their devastation. More images followed of the likes of Martin Luther King and Kim Jong-un  and the message in Chaplin’s speech continued, a message of uniting people through democracy. It was actually more theatrical than political as U2 have been at times thoughout their history. It also built the sense of anticipation for when U2 started their opening song. Which they did from inside the screen on the walkway! They played the first song ‘The Blackout’ from the latest album ‘Songs of Experience’ spread out in a line across the length of the screen/walkway. A song about democracy and extinction being a metaphor for, well, I’m still not sure. They followed with ‘Lights of Home’. We could see the band playing inside the screen lit as they were by lights inside the ‘cage’ whilst the screen flashed random images hundreds of feet long. Towards the end of the song the screen lifted whilst still flickering images and static to reveal the band.  Impressive staging!

Despite the size of the stages and screen the venue began to seem very small and intimate. I know this sounds crackers, after all, intimate was last week when the guitarist of the band I went to see wanted to step on the monitor but as there wasn’t one he put his foot on my table instead and knocked over my ashtray filled with dry roasted peanuts. I remember how all the best bands seem to make you feel as though they are only singing to you. Whatever you think about U2 (and I know there are many, many ‘varying’ opinions out there) Bono is a front man with charisma. The spell was actually broken when for the first time the band were shown on the screen and I was taken back to row z high in this cavern of a venue.

This was very much an energetic stroll through their history but the tour couldn’t be described as a greatest hits tour because they didn’t play all their greatest hits and none from ‘The Joshua Tree’. Interestingly they didn’t even play any songs from ‘Songs of Innocence’ an album referenced in the title of tour.  It wasn’t so much an exact chronologically ordered set but there was clearly an order that traced their history. After opening with numbers from the latest album, on they went straight into the 1980 single “I Will Follow’ from the first album ‘Boy’ then ‘Gloria’ from the second ‘October’, ’Beautiful Day’ then ‘Zoo Station’ completed the early part of the set and the band, who had four songs earlier returned to the rectangular stage leaving Bono on the walkway, once again joined Bono under the giant screen.

‘Stay (Faraway so close!)’, ‘Who’s Gonna Ride your Wild Horses’ & ‘The Fly’ traced the period from ‘Achtung Baby’ in 1991 to ‘Zooropa’ in 1993 and Bono explained how the period after ‘Rattle and Hum’ nearly broke the band and if it wasn’t for the experiences in Hansa Studios and their soaking up of the special atmosphere there, they wouldn’t be here now. And with that I can hear the mutterings and grumblings amongst the more cynical of you…..

And then a short intermission whilst a recorded version of ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ played out over an animated telling of their story during that period. I took the opportunity to make my way down to the arena floor at this point knowing, that if we were to be guided through their history, I knew I wouldn’t be missing much if they were going to play songs from their 1997 album ‘Pop’. Thankfully, they had the good grace and sense not to bother. The faux electronica flop ‘Pop’ (though I imagine most bands would rather like in excess of 6 million album sales) would have seemed incongruous in this arena such is the relative oddness of it. ‘Elevation’ and ‘Vertigo’ jumped to the 2000’s with a quick dip back into the early 1990’s with ‘Even Better than the Real Thing’. All this played out at the end of the walkway on the circular stage.

This is where I must congratulate the staging/production of this arena show. The gig was at capacity, every seat filled and yet the standing room on the arena floor was, how can I put it without being pessimistic, half full. Someone had the good sense to not pack the floor for extra revenue. It was actually possible to get three rows back from the circular stage without too much effort. The only downside being that you couldn’t see the massive screen as you had to arch your neck up 90 degrees, as indeed most people were doing. Which is the weird thing about big gigs these days. People are so concerned with recording the gig (because they can) that they watch the band through the screen of their phones without really appreciating the live performance in front of them. Whilst I confess to doing this myself later on, I justified this as being valuable research for this review. However almost the entire three front rows surrounding this intimate circular stage, did so for the next 6 songs.

Of course his ‘Zooropa’ era alter ego character ‘Macphisto’ had to make an appearance at some point and did so via the massive screen and through a special Macphisto ‘snapchat filter’. It almost seemed that they were trying to show how U2 can still be down with the kids and it just didn’t work, especially when the face recognition software kept dropping the filter, in much the same way as we find ourselves gurning into our daughters Snapchat filter trying to get the dog ears and tongue back….A welcome favourite ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’ lifted the roof off as almost everyone sang along (except me. I didn’t want to ruin my recording!) as ‘New Year’s Day’ followed shortly after.  Classic U2 but actually better with age. They weren’t just going through the motions and I was taken by the rawness of the stripped back instruments as they strode carefree through their musical history.

A triumphant version of ‘City of Blinding Lights’ completed the second half of the set and they strode off stage. During the short break a version of Jim O’Rourke’s ‘Women of the World’ played on the screen accompanied by black and white images of I believe, The Edge’s daughter Sian, who together with Bono’s son Eli, are on the album cover of ‘Songs of Experience’

‘One’, ‘Love is Bigger than Anything in it’s Way’ and 13 (There is a light) ended the set, the latter being dedicated to all those who were affected by the terrible events of May last year at the Arena.  Then that was it. Nearly two and a half hours gone . Thing is, it felt like ten minutes such was the way in which they drew me in. I may have being on my own the entire night but it didn’t matter because I was in Bono’s living room as he told me and me alone his history as The Edge, Larry Mullen Jnr and Adam Clayton brought in the metaphorical tea and biscuits. And so we go back to my first thought, that tonight they might apologise to me for bringing into the world of music the album ‘Pop’. They didn’t. They didn’t need to. I finally understood. It is what it is. A period of their history amongst many, that brought them to where they find themselves now. Like it or not.

Setlist

  1. The Blackout
  2. Lights of Home
  3. I will Follow
  4. Gloria
  5. Beautiful Day
  6. Zoo Station
  7. Stay (Faraway So Close!)
  8. Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
  9. The Fly

Intermission – Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me

  1. Elevation
  2. Vertigo
  3. Even Better than the Real Thing
  4. Acrobat
  5. You’re the Best Thing About Me
  6. Summer of Love
  7. Pride (In the Name of Love)
  8. Get Out of Your Own Way
  9. New Year’s Day
  10. City of Blinding Lights

Encore

  1. One
  2. Love is Bigger than Anything in it’s Way
  3. 13 (There is a Light)

 

Reviewer: Phillip Veitch

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