BUSY, busy, busy. Under a giant claw/spaceship/kid’s-toy-on-steroids stage set, in a stadium filled to the nosebleed seats and the inner circle pulsating with energised fans, empty seconds rarely appeared.
Across two hours and 24 of their own songs, U2 managed to slip in lyrical, musical or visual references to the Beatles and David Bowie, AIDS and Sarajevo, INXS and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, family death and African debt, Bob Geldof and Aung San Suu Kyi, Kanye West and Amazing Grace, Oprah Winfrey and Amnesty International. Oh yes, and office Christmas parties.
Too much? Now it is true that total stimulation has been the U2 method since their early ’90s reinvention of the stadium show as audio-visual immersion. Sometimes it has been a treat, sometimes it has been a distraction and sometimes, as in the first of their Sydney shows four years ago, it has been the saving grace in an unbalanced set. But what is striking this time around is how, despite the fixed-to-mega settings of everything, they have balanced the message and the medium so well.
Most of the extracurricular material was fleeting or lightly handled, earnestness was kept to a minimum (though that’s hardly the worst sin a band can commit) and the in-the-round nature of the stage meant that there was at least an illusion of some intimacy.
Of course intimacy is relative when 80 per cent of us had to watch with one eye on the stage and one eye on the screens, but a charged Bono and the only slightly less sparky Edge seemed more engaged with the songs and in turn the audience than they have been in years.
Even Larry Mullen jnr (who took a walk around the split stage playing congas) and Adam Clayton (wearing more sparkle than a bogan school formal dress) were giving out, not just looking in.
In a show roughly broken up into half-hour segments surprises came with both the old, the return of a neatly thrilling I Will Follow early in the first 30 minutes of guitar rock power and drive, and the new, the reinvention of the weakest song from their most recent album, I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight. This song was done as some kind of house-infused disco number which, in the third rock-as-dance section, segued neatly into bursts of Relax and Two Tribes.
There was not as much time for contemplation or variation (I would have liked to hear superior new tracks such as Cedars of Lebanon and Fez and cheekier old ones such as Lemon and The Fly) and Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me still doesn’t sustain attention no matter what flashing doodads are deployed, but this was U2 in form. Fine form.