City of Manchester Stadium, Tuesday 14th June 2005 concert review by Mark Goodge.
Along with 40,000 other people (give or take a few thousand) and a few assorted celebrities (seasoned name-spotters tell me that Peter Kay, Cat Deeley and Gary Neville were among the audience), I turned up at the City of Manchester Stadium on 14th June to see the "world's biggest rock band". Despite some confusion over queuing and getting into the stadium (press reports tell of stewards covertly selling access to the inner area), we managed to bag reasonably good seats in the unreserved area to the right of the stage. The first support act, New York rockers The Bravery, were received politely, and the second, Snow Patrol, rather more enthusiastically - the crowd using this as a chance to warm up their singing voices for the main event to follow. But it was still a long wait until, eventually, the members of U2 wandered onto the stage with no fanfare, no introduction and just picked up their instruments and started to play.
One thing that you can always rely on with U2 is that they'll put on a good show. With the event starting in broad daylight (this was the middle of June, after all), and ending in near darkness, the stage and lighting had been designed to use the twilight effectively - as the night darkened, the huge silver screen behind the band started to come to life in colours and images and floodlights swept over the crowd. The stage itself had two spurs out into the crowd, along which the band would wander seemingly at random - even the drummer, Larry Mullen, made two excursions to the end of the promenade, once to play a small drum kit hoisted onto the end and later, in the final encore, to play keyboard during an acoustic treatment of "Yahweh".
But the main focus, as always, wasn't the lights and the set but the music, the performers - and the politics. Bono has the ability to make even the largest stage seem smaller than he is, while The Edge's trademark guitar sound swirled through the expanse of the stadium as if daring anything to contradict it. The set kicked off with "Vertigo", the first single from the current album, followed by a couple of their earliest songs in "I Will Follow" and "The Electric Co". Although showcasing 'How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb' (seven tracks from the album were played), the other songs covered the whole spectrum of U2's output with classics alongside more recent compositions. "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" was dedicated to Bono's late father, Bob Hewson - something which brought back memories of the last time I saw U2 play live, in London on 18 August 2001, where Bono talked about his then very ill father before dedicating a song to him. Bob Hewson died two days later. Now, as then, the song sung in his name segued into the chorus of "No Regrets" - but this time Bono went a line further, daring to sing "I don't want you back, we'd only cry again" before the music faded out. With the majority of the audience well aware of the resonance, this was an incredibly emotionally charged moment.
The heart of the concert, though, wasn't just about music or sentiment. The most overtly political song on the new album, "Love And Peace Or Else", preceded "Sunday Bloody Sunday" reinvented as a tirade against conflict in the Middle East, leading into Bono's now famously controversial (and ambiguous) chant, "Jesus, Jew, Mohammed, it's true" - a phrase which can mean almost anything depending on how you punctuate it - illustrated by the man himself (looking for all the world like Axl Rose at this point) wearing a bandana bearing the word "coexist" with the C, X and T being the Islamic crescent, Star of David and Christian cross respectively. U2 may not be great theologians, but they know how to make religion a talking point. Following this with "Bullet The Blue Sky" as an anti-poverty statement (with the flags of various African nations scrolling down the big screen) and then dedicating "Running To Stand Still" to British troops in Iraq, there was certainly no attempt to play down the politics. In between, we were all invited to use our mobile phones to text a "drop the debt" message to the government (the names of those who did so later scrolling across the screen during the encore), and Bono made a short speech thanking Gordon Brown and Tony Blair for their work in getting the G8 to agree on putting Africa at the top of the agenda. Oh, and we were treated to the text of the UN Declaration on Human Rights being read to us. Anyone who had gone along expecting just to listen to the music would probably have been shocked at the level of overt politicising - but then, no one goes along to a U2 gig just to listen to the music these days, do they?
Having said that, the music was, as expected, superb. Once the sermonising was over, the music took centre stage again with "Pride", "Where The Streets Have No Name" and "One" providing a suitably rousing end to the main section of the set before we endured the obligatory "we're pretending to wait for you to call for an encore before we come back on stage" break. Not that the crowd took it very seriously - I've heard louder chants of "more" at dingy club venues. But even rock music has its holy and unbreakable traditions, and the faux-encore is one of them.
Once back on stage, the band stormed into Popmart-style renditions of "Zoo Station", "The Fly" and "Mysterious Ways" - by now it was dark enough for the lights and the screen to be used at their full effect - followed by a mellower "With Or Without You" concluded with snippets of Joy Division's "Transmission" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart", before another short break. Returning for the last time, the band wrapped up the show with two more songs from the new album and then revisiting the opening song, "Vertigo", this time in the extended version with full lighting effects. Magnificent.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.