A day after he traveled to Sochi on the Black Sea to meet President Dmitry Medvedev, Bono joined the rest of the band onstage at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium. The show was U2’s first-ever in Russia; the group had been one of the few major international acts who hadn’t played in the country, where Western music is hugely popular.
As the band took the stage, the skies opened with torrential rain - especially ironic since “Beautiful Day” was among the first songs. Most of the 50,000-plus crowd stayed dry, though, since the seating area at the stadium - used primarily for soccer - is covered by a roof. The band, as well as the throngs of fans in the dance-floor area, weren’t so lucky. Only the drum kit seemed reliably protected from the rain, while Bono, Edge and bassist Adam Clayton played under the raindrops and got soaked in the process.
Bono treated the crowd to an a capella version of “Singing in the Rain,” though most fans seemed more familiar with the words to U2’s own hits like “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “One” and “With or Without You,” which brought virtually the entire house to its feet.
Bono, at first, directed the political references for which he’s known to places located far from Russia. At one point, the band played “Walk On,” a song dedicated to jailed Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. Between songs, he thanked President Medvedev for his “gracious” reception.
But Bono gave his warmest shout-out (subtitled into Russian on the giant screen above the stage) to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he said was at the show (the two have known each other for about a decade). The crowd’s response was less enthusiastic - though credited with ending communism, Gorbachev is deeply unpopular in Russia for bringing about the end of the Soviet Union.
The band followed the praise of Gorbachev with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” - which could be interpreted as a veiled reference to Russia’s interrupted move to democracy since Gorbachev left office in 1991. In case anyone missed the point, Bono later led the crowd in a chorus of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” during a break in “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
The Russian politics got heavier in the encores, when Bono, playing acoustic guitar, invited Russian rocker Yuri Shevchuk onstage to join him for a version of Bob Dylan’s classic, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Shevchuk, whose band DDT started out in the underground under the Soviets, has been one of the very few Russian musicians to publicly criticize the Kremlin for rolling back democratic freedoms. Shevchuk confronted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about the issue at a meeting with artists and writers earlier this year. He’d signed an appeal with several other activists this week calling on Bono to raise the issues in his meeting with President Medvedev. It wasn’t clear from official Kremlin accounts if Russian domestic policies came up in that session, however. Bono started that meeting saying he hoped to bridge the musical gap between himself, a Led Zeppelin fan, and Medvedev, who is known for his love of Deep Purple (a group Bono and the rest of U2 had jokingly belittled in interviews with the Russian press this week). Medvedev resolved the issue by saying that he likes Led Zeppelin, too.
As the show headed into its third hour Wednesday and the group played its last encore (”Moment of Surrender”) dedicated to the victims of the wildfires that swept Russia this summer), the rain let up, releasing the crowd into a cool August evening.