The O2 Arena, Thursday 29th October 2015 concert review by John Cheek
Having seen U2 live
previously on seven occasions, the prospect of a performance by Bono
and the boys now takes on the perspective of a pilgrimage for me and,
it seems, for many others. For my first couple of U2 gigs, travel to
Wembley from my Southend-on-Sea hometown was not a huge undertaking.
Over the years, I've seen them in different venues in Manchester, too
- and now, my wife and I planned to travel from Chester to a certain
former-Millennium Dome, in Greenwich in south London.
It felt like a pilgrimage and our journey to see these (four) wise men, was worthwhile - like those making pilgrimages from Brazil, Argentina and Denmark, it felt that we were attending more than just a concert. For me, U2 are still striving to be salt-and-light in the heart of popular culture. For most of us there, U2 stand for all that we sympathise with in this world. It reminded us again of why the early U2 had such crossover appeal among the punks and rock fans of the time: they possessed all that new wave energy and still presented a positive message which provided an alternative to all the nihilism on the one hand and the sex-'n'-drugs-'n'-rock-'n'-roll clichés on the other.
The early days of the band were a constant theme running through this show and, indeed, the 'Songs Of Innocence' album which preceded the tour. The Innocence & Experience Tour, with a nod to the mystical Christian poet William Blake, is intended to straddle three studios albums reflecting on the band's past, present and future. Right from the start, U2 were a tremendously visual live act and of course over the decades set the bar when it came to the art of presenting the rock gig. But as their name testifies, they were also determined to make their shows as much about the fans as the musicians and here, they again attempt to bridge the gap between artist and audience: all the while remembering why they wanted to be a band in the first place.
So we get the songs from the album describing how music inspired them as teenagers ("The Miracle Of Joey Ramone"), how it helped them come to terms with growing up in a troubled-Ireland of the 1970s ("Raised By Wolves") and the premature passing of Bono's mother when he was 14 ("Iris"), all performed with the passion and verve of artists who play as if their own lives depended on it. U2 had come on to the strains of Patti's Smith's "People Have The Power" and now they name-check other new wave acts who influenced them, back then: The Clash, The Jam.
They don't hide the non-conformist Christian beliefs also a feature of their past and present - "Gloria", "I Will Follow" and "October", those evangelistic anthems from the first two albums are played and received with almost religious fervour; as part of the show's visuals, at one point thousands of pieces of paper flutter down from the ceiling of the venue, like the silent-falling of poppies at the Albert Hall at a Remembrance Service. We all strain to grab them, and my wife and I realise that they are pages from the Bible and C S Lewis' Screwtape Letters, a copy of the latter Bono also holds on-stage, at another point. Indeed, we were just 15 yards away from the band on many occasions, on the long, narrow stage which runs all the way through the audience. Being so close, they somehow achieved a degree of intimacy with the 10,000 crowd. For many of us, this is as good-as-it-gets; if we could live the dream of being in a band, this is the sort of music we would make. A realisation spreads over some of us, that U2 will not be around for ever and we need to appreciate them whilst we can.
By now, the audience realise - if they surely hadn't, long ago - that U2's music is about Something Bigger, something Other than a great rock group. A poignant, emotional "Bad" segues into "People Have The Power" and before a barely-believing crowd, Patti Smith, the original punk princess, joins them to sing the lead-vocal on this, the final song. Recently, Smith affirmed in an interview that her famously-wild religious beliefs are now centred on the person of Jesus Christ. Judging by the size of the crucifix she wears, this does not seem in doubt. She seems thrilled at appearing at what now feels like a religious revival.
Afterwards, we chat to fans from across the country, all talking about feeling inspired to do something positive with their lives as a response to this pilgrimage. Conversations continue on the tube back to my sister's home, on the London/Essex border, where a lady asks me, "Is Bono a Christian?" I respond by informing her and the others, that all four band-members are believers. "Oh, I did wonder. Their songs always seem very Christian...it does appeal to me."
Indeed, U2 have a lot of crossover appeal, even now.