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Live Review: U2

There's sentimentality, shocking omissions and too much new stuff… but somehow it all works. Hampden Park, Glasgow, Tuesday, August 18

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In more ways than one, going to see U2 is a lot like going on a rollercoaster. Before you crucify us for lazily resorting to journalistic cliché, however, we should state that we’re not talking thrills and simple, giddy nausea here. We’re talking, first of all, about the waiting. The endless, anticipatory, gridlocked hours of it. Then comes the ‘oooohing’ and ‘aaaahing’ as the bells, whistles and general whizz bang-ery comes into view; this time in the form of a giant, four-pronged crab-like contraption in the centre of the stadium. After that, there’s the pulse-quickening realisation that said waiting is almost at an end. And finally, there are a series of peaks, troughs, swerves and swivels that leave you wondering if it was all really worthwhile.
To cut to the chase – it is. Eventually.

U2 are as grand a live spectacle as you’re ever likely to see, but the first third of tonight’s set frustratingly focuses on their rather pedestrian new album. So you have an anti-climactic opener in the shape of ‘Breathe’, followed by the staid ‘No Line On The Horizon’ and then ‘Get On Your Boots’, which sounds a bit like your dad urging you onto the dancefloor at your grandfolks’ silver jubilee. Brandon Flowers often makes
a lot of noise about wanting to sound like U2 but, as they slide into middle age, you realise that, more and more, it’s actually U2 who are desperate to sound like The Killers. And frankly, they’re not so hot at it.

Still, things pick up immeasurably when ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ shimmers into earshot and reminds you of the power they can summon at the press of a guitar pedal, while a dirty, distorted ‘Elevation’ veers as close to punk rock as they probably allow themselves to get.
An acoustic rendition of ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ is another nice touch. Bono’s messianic tendencies take a welcome backseat to the music too, save for a mid-set dedication of ‘Walk On’ to Burmese political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi which is rather cruelly – or comically, depending on your point of view – neutered by the PA cutting out for half of it.

In terms of the setlist, there are a few regrettable omissions – how the tepid ‘City Of Blinding Lights’ can warrant inclusion when ‘The Fly’ doesn’t is a source of supreme bafflement – but nothing that leaves you feeling short-changed. You do wonder if their faith in their post-’90s output is misplaced, though. For our money, U2 are at their best when they’re at their loudest and brashest – as a riotous ‘Vertigo’ daftly and deftly demonstrates – as opposed to overwrought and unbearably worthy (closing with ‘Moment Of Surrender’? Whose idea was that?).

By the time ‘One’ comes around, though, even the most cynical of observers (ie us) are swept up. You can’t not be. Sure, every song utilizes the same sturdy psuedo-Christian metaphors – there’s much lifting, carrying and general peaceable co-existence – and their gonzoid stadium-art albums (‘Achtung Baby’, ‘Pop’) are disappointingly overlooked, but why argue with 50-something thousand people singing ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ or ‘With Or Without You’? Ultimately, U2 are just too good at these sorts of gigs for you to leave totally unmoved or at least a tiny bit impressed, even if it goes against one’s better critical faculties. They can thrill, they can bore, they can make you cloyingly sick with sentiment, but, at the end of the day, the ride remains just about worth it.

Barry Nicolson

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