Opening a show with your signature song is a bold move. Fleetwood Mac pulled it off the other month when the opened with The Chain; U2 kicked off last night’s show at Mount Smart Stadium, the first in their revival of the 2017 Joshua Tree Tour, with Sunday Bloody Sunday. And it made perfect sense—the four snare-drum cracks that kick-start the song reminded the audience thatLarry Mullen Jr’s drums are the backbone of the band’s sound.
Sunday Bloody Sunday led into New Year’s Day, and Bad, and Pride, a quick “what we did before” set played on the Tree Stage, the small no-frills stage that’s now mandatory at a stadium show. It was an effective way of demonstrating that, while U2 are capable—as we were about to be reminded—of staging an almost overwhelming audio-visual production, they are still the band that started writing and performing together over forty years ago. They sounded, frankly, outstanding, Bono’s voice rich and clear over The Edge’s chiming, chopped guitar and Adam Clayton’s insistent basslines.
A full set on the Tree Stage would have been a highly entertaining concert, but last night’s show was built around The Joshua Tree, the 1987 album that remains their most successful and critically acclaimed. And if the first four songs had been—at least to the extent that this is possible in a stadium filled with 40,000 fans—intimate, then the next eleven songs were big, expansive, the wide-open sound of the songs of that album matched by 200-foot-wide, 40-foot high LED screen, its thousand individual video panels making up the largest video screen, set designer Willie Williams told Crave!, the largest ever used in a touring show.
Pride (In The Name Of Love) was the segue that led into The Joshua Tree, the audience providing the whoa-whoa singout as the crew removed drumkit and keyboard from the Tree Stage and Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech was displayed on the screen behind the main stage, Bad having already teed up that this was to be a very Americana-themed concert, Bono telling us that “the idea of America” is that “the word freedom is being weighed and measured.”
The Joshua Tree, let’s be honest, is a record of two sides. The hits—Where The Streets Have No Name, With Or Without You—are all side-one material, with the deep cuts on the second side. And so this phase of the show opened, inevitably, with power and splendour, the massive screen behind the band, unobscured by lighting or sound rigs (lights and speaker clusters were cantilevered over the top of the stage from columns standing behind) showing Ansel Adams-style stark, black-and-white images of the American wilderness. The Joshua Tree is also a very American record, in many ways Bono’s love letter to a slightly romanticised, idealised notion of America. And its emotional heart is Bullet The Blue Sky, Mullen’s relentless drumming driving a song that features a degree of anger and honesty that’s perhaps absent in the more radio-friendly songs numbers. Side two, then, opened with Red Hill Mining Town, a Salvation Army brass band projected onto the screen and, presumably—no other musicians beyond the four band members being—their contribution pre-recorded. In God’s Country is, in many ways, the distillation of The Joshua Tree, the song that ties the album into the sound of the records that preceded it, but the song that, inevitably, made the biggest impression last night, in Auckland, was One Tree Hill, dedicated, obviously, to the memory of Greg Carroll, whose image was projected at the end of the song And yet, oddly, despite this being a show in Auckland, the band’s first for over ten years, there was no acknowledgment that I heard that the show was being played in the shadow of Maungakiekie.
The Joshua Tree done and dusted, Angel of Harlem—a lovely song, albeit a song that doesn’t quite sound like a U2 song—kicked off an extended encore that took a very brisk trot through, as Bono put it, “what happened next.” The near-manic intensity of Vertigo led into the classic-U2 jangle of Beautiful Day, a song that sounded like it was threatening to break into Gloria at any moment but, sadly, didn’t. And this was where one finally got the feeling that the band were really enjoying what they were doing. The Joshua Tree is, whatever else it may be, quite an earnest set of songs. But Elevation, or Vertigo, these are songs that give a band an opportunity to let go a little, and this they did, Bono indulging himself a little more than might have been ideal as he talked about no longer being the boy from Dublin—”Paul is dead”—but at least engaging, rather than goading, the audience.
That was the job of opening act Noel Gallagher, late of Oasis and now of High Flying Birds fame. Set-opener Holy Mountain started out wanting to be Do The Strand, and then got bored and decided it wanted to be Diamond Dogs instead. It’s not a bad song, and it shows that Gallagher’s tendency to be, well, influenced by his musical heroes is at least casting its net a tad wider of late. But while Oasis were often, and perhaps unkindly, dismissed as Beatles copyists, on last night’s showing Gallagher now seems to want to be a Slade tribute act doing Beatles and Bowie covers. He’ll never admit it, but he misses his Liam quite remarkably; he’s a perfectly adequate singer, but there’s nothing of his kid’s swagger about his performance. Perhaps that’s why he felt the need to rile up the crowd. “What happened at the fucking rugby, then, eh?” he asked, clearly not quite reading the room before dedicating—”yes, I’m fucking doing it”—Don’t Look Back In Anger to the All Blacks. Were he still a Manc, he’d realise that, even though he wrote and sang the song, it no longer belongs to him. Mind you, were he still a Manc, he’d have known that Crumpsall is in Manchester. At least he’s an equal-opportunity antagoniser. I’m a Manc, one of my greatest musical regrets is that I never saw Oasis play live, and although I sang along with Wonderwall last night loudly enough to annoy the people around me, I couldn’t find it in myself to enthuse about Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Closing with All You Need Is Love was either a bit on the nose or an admission; either way, Noel really needs to start finding some nice things to say about Liam.
It’s not entirely clear, then, how Noel Gallagher came to be warming up for U2. While he’s clearly not quite the force he used to be—Oasis, famously, played the biggest concerts England has ever seen—U2 somehow manage to remain relevant, and vital, well into their fifth decade. Nudging their 60s, they play with the energy of men half their age. Bono’s voice remains a powerful instrument, and they still have an evident passion for both their music and their politics: Ultra Violet (Light My Way) was dedicated to a litany of women who have made a difference in history, the enormous screen filled with images of both the obvious—Jacinda Ardern was there, as was Helen Clark—and the less well-known, Māori leaders such as Ākenehi Tōmoana and Sophia Hinerangi also featuring. And One, the night’s closer, was performed before a blank, black screen that slowly filled with 51 names, 51 people from Christchurch.
It would be very easy to dismiss a band who have taken the “play a classic album in its entirety” route as a legacy act, a band trading on past glories. But while Noel Gallagher, by that standard, should have played (What’s The Story) Morning Glory and skipped his solo material, U2 managed to play both sides, reliving the pinnacle of their career while still finding urgency and energy in songs from either side of that moment. There’s clearly a long run left in the band, and I’ll look forward to seeing them again.
Some tickets are still available for U2’s second show at Mount Smart Stadium, on Saturday November 9th, from Ticketmaster.