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U2: Innocence + experience tour

Rupert Loydell

O2, London (October 25, 2015)
Until November 28, 2015

As the members of U2 enter through a corner arena door before climbing onto their runway stage, Patti Smith's 'People have the power' plays. I wonder who these empowered people are? Not, I suspect, the ones who have paid a fortune to sit in this corporate tent having queued and been herded about in security lines for the last hour before being allowed access to overpriced food, drinks and merchandise. Not the ones who simply can't afford tickets for this tour.

I've always defended U2 when my friends and students have poured scorn on them, questioning their adoption of different causes to support whilst relaxing in their millionaire houses around the world, and damning the music they dislike. But to me U2 have mostly made great albums and played great gigs; even when I saw them nervously perform at The Windsor Castle pub in London several decades back. Yes, there have been moments of awkward chest-beating and preaching, but never so much that I have given up on the band. Not until tonight, anyway.

From the start, tonight's music is bombastic and cajoling, unsubtle stadium rock that relies on big drums, dramatic guitar, and emotional vocals. The subtle textures of their music are gone and we are left with a noisy garage band playing in, well an oversize garage or aircraft hangar. You wouldn't know though by the response of the crowd. They are here to have a good time and to behave like a caricature of a rock audience. Everyone is recording the gig, texting and waving to their friends, taking selfies of themselves gurning with the stage and band in the background. Perhaps the band are right to be so unsubtle, perhaps this way they stand a chance of making people actually listen?

Visually, the show is as fantastic as U2 shows always are. A double-sided screen hangs above the stage, stretching the length of the arena. Later, we realise the screen is actually a box which Bono can walk in, becoming part of the videos; it can also be lowered onto the stage and elongated through the use of curtains. The band spend a lot of time strutting, marching and ambling along the runway in an attempt to be near their adoring audience, as well as performing on a small round stage furthest from the main stage. This has a pop-up keyboard hidden in it, which is used by Edge for 'October', one of the few surprises in tonight's set list.

The music finally comes alive when they play 'Raised by Wolves' from their last album, but Bono is intent on explaining his version of the song to us, trying to make an over-riding narrative of much of tonight's concert, instead of letting the song speak for itself. This over-articulation is also evident in his self-questioning rewrite of 'Bullet the Blue Sky', where Bono now meets a younger version of himself who accuses him of being part of the problem. This issue remains unresolved as Edge's guitar wails and soars into the song's climax. Perhaps we should be glad questions about fame, riches, poverty and politics are being asked, but the questions remain unanswered and don't lead anywhere except the next song.

Later in the evening, Bono talks about using technology to connect, but in fact it simply distances the audience from the band. It makes it clear how choreographed and scripted this event is - especially when we get the tired ritual of Bono pulling a woman from the audience up to dance with/at him and then film the next song. Springsteen did this routine 30 years ago - do we need it done again? And who is singing the background refrain of 'The Sweetest Thing' as Bono hams it up at the keyboard? One can't help but think that maybe it's all clicktracks and background tapes now.

I can't help thinking U2 have blown it. Despite liking the gesture of giving their last album away via iTunes, the band don't seem to value the songs on it; the setlist is mostly an only-to-be-expected greatest hits affair. I for one would have loved to hear their new album live, for them to have had the courage of their convictions. Instead I felt cajoled and preached at, a spectator at a weird rally, with songs pushed into a narrative they didn't fit, including a token rant about European borders and refugees. I haven't been so disappointed for a long time.

As the song says: 'I don't believe any more'.