I’ve to say I’m a U2 fan by osmosis.

Unlike my stint in SCANDAL/Pearl Jam/Metallica fandom, U2 was that one song called Pride in my 80s pirate diskang compilation cassette I bought at Wisma Punca Emas. Or the background anthem of my boarding house mates in Portora Royal during The Joshua Tree era. Or the tales regaled by my flatmates at med school of how absorbing of a viewing experience it was watching Rattle and Hum at the local multiplex in Newcastle. My first U2 tape (of sorts) was Achtung Baby when I was in the second year of uni. Even then, it was a copy recorded from my flatmate’s CD onto a Sony blank cassette. Over the years, I started to listen to them a bit more, although the back catalogue kinda stopped at The Joshua Tree. Anything prior were hit singles or prominent songs fans really liked. Fast forward to August 2001, I finally got to see them live during the Elevation tour in Brum. I have to add that I actually had tix to see them in Sheffield at the now demolished Don Valley Stadium during the first leg of their 360° tour 9 years ago but for some reason or other, I didn’t manage to go.

It was early this year that I received an email from Live Nation that U2 was doing an arena tour, which I didn’t pay much attention to especially when I wasn’t listening to them much recently, let alone their new material which included that album that all us iTunes users received for, err… free.

Then there was another email saying they added another date (due to overwhelming demand[1]… koff) which was a Saturday night in Manchester. It was then when I went to buy my ticket during the presale, and found a pretty decent seat. A few days before the gig, I went online and saw a few images/vids of their current eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour and I have to say they’ve put up the onstage tech another notch, just like their previous tours.

On the day before the show, I received an email reminder that there would be no opening act and punters are to arrive at the venue at half six (U2 gets onstage at 8 PM) due to enhanced security checks post-May 2017. I have to say, though, the checks were very efficiently done and it was just a breeze – no real queuing whatsoever, really. Got to my seat after grabbing some merch and I have to say the view was pretty good from where I was. They then actually got onstage at half eight, but I guess the 8 PM start in the email was prolly meant to get enough people turning up on time. I haven’t really (or not at all) listen to any of their material from No Line on the Horizon onwards but that was fine. If the music is good, shouldn’t be any issues!

A U2 gig will defo has a political slant to it, and I am aware of the band’s view on world affairs for years now. The images flashing on the digital screen of the central barricage from the get go was that of a brain MRI followed by those of European cities taken after the devastation of WW2, with Chaplin’s The Dictator monologue playing in the background – kickstarting the show with the band performing The Blackout. This was mind-blowing, I thought. The band was actually in the barricage which meant there shouldn’t be a bad seat in the house. Distorted silhouettes of the band interplayed with the digital images throughout the song, with the band actually visible during the rousing chorus. I also thought this was a cracker of a song, and this was the first ever time I heard it. I was then sure tonight’s show would be a good one.

An oldie came on pretty early in the show – I Will Follow saw them playing the main stage at where I was closest to. But my fav bit had to be when The Edge played that well known intro guitar riff after Bono said the word “Berlin” after reeling off a number of European cities the band love. They played Zoo Station! Bono wasn’t doing the full epileptic goose-step like he did in them ZOO TV days but he did the “pose” bit. A lil’ bit. The barricage then lit up with the U2 sign from the Berlin underground system, followed by the words “BERLIN ZOOLOGISCHER GARTEN”. I was really giddy like a school kid especially when I was actually in Berlin a few months earlier. Bono was going on for a bit before they played this, though, and I think it’s worth checking that out:

It wasn’t really apparent but this segment of the show was kinda like the ‘Berlin’ era[2] songs – The Fly, Stay (I got a tad emo on this one – for reals) and Wild Horses followed suit. I saw Stay as an acoustic Bono/The Edge number all those years ago in Brum, but for this night, it was a gentle band version.

The set also began to appear like it was following a certain narrative by now – one which told the story of the band’s journey from the early days in Dublin to the present day. The band stepped off the barricage at the other end of the arena onto the ‘E stage’ and did Elevation (it was Angelina Jolie and Tomb Raider all over again that night) followed by Vertigo. The ‘E stage’ was great as the floor lit up by what I think was an actual LED screen. And with this projected onto the barricage digital screen, it was just ace – visually and sonically.

Another utility of current tech on the set was the utility of augmented reality when Bono’s alter ego, MacPhisto, made a comeback, pretty much following the aforesaid narrative of the band’s story. The camera was shaped like a mirror that Bono looked into and he did a lil’ monologue, rambling like so:

Guess who’s back? Back again… MacPhisto’s back, tell your friends. MacPhisto is back in his most favourite club on the planet. You sort of invented clubs, didn’t you my little Manc-ey pants.. That’s why your Monday’s are not Happy… they’re Blue! The Hellfire Club… now, that was my gaff, that was the place to be.. I don’t want to be a part of a club that I can’t burn down, so I’ve been a busy devil, burning down all kinds of clubs; The United Nations, NATO, the EU…

Acrobat which came after the MacPhisto skit was a surprise, and it suddenly dawned on me how Achtung Baby-heavy tonight’s set is thus far. But what about the classics, which in my books meant material from around and before The Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum records. There was none, sadly – although I have to say despite the political posturing, the band appeared less “angry” I guess. Also, I have seen them play Bullet The Blue Sky and Sunday Bloody Sunday back in ’09, which were superb renditions if I should say so myself. I was over the moon when they played Pride (In the Name of Love)[3], though. That one, I’ve never seen live before. As expected, the screen had videos and images from the civil rights movement, far right rallies in Europe down to what happened in Charlottesville. During this song, The Edge and Adam were performing on two separate mini-stages facing the barricage, with Larry drumming on the main stage and Bono singing on the ‘E stage’.

The band regrouped back at the main stage for a few more songs, one of which was New Year’s Day which started with Bono waxing lyrical about Brexit and how Europe will miss the UK when she leaves. Throughout the night, he had gone to pay tribute to Manchester’s contribution may it be to music, or to the world at large:

Manchester… City of The Buzzcocks, Magazine, Joy Division, The Smiths… Martin Hannett, The Invisible Girls, Oasis…

Blessed is the University… 21 Nobel Prizes… Blessed is Coronation Street, Royal… Manchester… STILL a great European city… Blessed is Bobby Charlton.. Blessed is Jack Charlton. Blessed are the Blues… and the Reds!

All this with the EU flag in the background with one of the stars showing a Union Jack in its foreground, marked with a heart. At this point, one now realises why the ticket prices for those sat behind the main stage was like £38.

They then ended the main set with City of Blinding Lights from 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. For the encore, they played One (that’s the 6th Achtung Baby song that night) and Love Is Bigger another nice one from their latest album, with excerpts from the official music video playing on the barricage’s screens. I’m afraid I couldn’t say much about the new material when I first saw them that night. Another new song worthy a mention was Lights of Home which was the second song in the main set. I thought that was quite good, and the version they played was the St. Peter’s Strings mix which is found in the deluxe edition of their new record. As a final note, they did the poignant 13, also from the new album, dedicated to the children of the band’s erstwhile tour manager (they were in the crowd that night) who passed on back in May of this year[4].

I thought that was a fantastic gig. The sound was spot on, and the spectacle was something I had expected from U2. The tix price was somewhat premium (and it wasn’t even resale) but that’s how it is these days, I guess – when artistes can’t make as much from record sales and having to hike up their gig ticket prices to remain, err… gainfully employed. On one hand, I agree that this is U2 we are talking about, but on the other, just because they are loaded, tix can’t be had for cheap, can they. I merely guess. More importantly, though, I’m so glad I bought the ticket on a gut feeling as I was really happy to get to see them perform live again after all these years.

Manchester Arena 20.10.18 set: The Blackout / Lights of Home / I Will Follow / All Because of You / Beautiful Day / Zoo Station / The Fly / Stay (Faraway, So Close!) / Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses / Elevation / Vertigo / Even Better Than the Real Thing / Acrobat / You’re the Best Thing About Me / Summer of Love / Pride (In the Name of Love) / Get Out of Your Own Way / New Year’s Day / City of Blinding Lights // One / Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way / 13 (There Is a Light)

Photos of the show from the band’s official Twitter. Set list from u2.com. All YouTube links in this post are of fan-made videos taken at this show.

[1]They sold out the preceding night which was a Friday. So, adding a Saturday night was a no-brainer, especially when I have a feeling they were already planning to play Saturday anyway. And in the end, the band was playing two consecutive dates at all the UK venues at least. Very clever.
[2]Stay was the odd one out – Zooropa was recorded in Dublin.
[3]Apparently this was the 1000th time the band played Pride live.
[4]The night before, 13 was dedicated to the 22 dead from the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.