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"I write songs about high ideas and aspirations and I admire Martin Luther King and John Hume, peaceful people, but in myself I'm capable of aggression of a really brutal kind." — Bono

U2: Astoria, London

- February 11, 2001

by Andrew Smith

SOMETHING dreadful nearly happened. Standing in the long queue for the
most intimate gig U2 have staged since the days when John Peel played
their records, in about 1863, I mentioned with an innocent chuckle that
a tout had just offered me pounds 400 for my ticket. The response I was
looking for was amused derision, but suddenly the queue was awash with
excited talk of what a person could buy with such a sum. Twenty rare U2
interview discs! A night on the town with Lady Victoria Hervey! 1,200
tea towels!

Actually, no one specifically mentioned the interview discs, but for a
moment, I had a vision of ending up inside the Astoria for this free,
fan-only show, alone, save for hordes of Japanese and American fanatics
who had been willing to fork out the 800 quid touts were demanding. That
most people elected to hold the high ground and decline to sell is a
tribute to both the band and our human capacity for extreme stupidity.

Not that being a U2 fan is stupid. No one of sound mind and ear could
feel comfortable with everything they've done: their success is down to
the fact that, even when you hate them, you love them a little, too -
often for the same reasons. Why? Because when they're at their soaring,
chiming best, as they are during 'One' tonight, few other bands can
touch them. Because a performance like this makes you realise that, like
the squashed moth on your windscreen, they've travelled a huge distance
over their 20 years, while also sort of staying in the same place. And
because Bono is a media-watcher who hates being considered naff, but
will grasp that nettle with selflessness and courage when he thinks that
the situation demands it. And it so often does. Bless.

All of which goes some way to explaining why the kids aren't here. U2
grew up with post-punk modernism, with the notion that rock must be
pushed forward and periodically reinvented to be vital and interesting.
But the generation who followed aren't remotely interested in this
project, finding an impossible, alien romance in the trad stuff punk had
aimed to supplant - hence Oasis, Travis, Coldplay, Stereophonics.
Against our better instincts, some of us get grumpy about such
reverence, but in the event this evening's show deftly illustrates - as
if the Eighties hadn't done enough - both the thrills and pitfalls of
the rock modernist agenda.

Bono is looking more like Roy Orbison every day. A woman near me starts
crying as he appears, beaming, in black leather jacket and shades. He
wears the shades to hide the heroic collection of bags under his eyes,
just as Edge dons his black skull cap to camouflage baldness. In fact,
you know your audience is middle-aged when you remove your sunglasses
and they gasp as if you'd just whipped off your G-string. But, dressed
down in jeans and T-shirts, U2 look lean and sound sharp. 'We're back to
reapply for the job,' the singer declaims - adding, before the Astoria
janitors have time to get worried, that the job they seek is 'best band
in the world'. All right, then.

When the dust had settled, how preposterous did this seem, not six
months after Radiohead had toured one of the most transporting shows
ever seen? Not particularly, for the most part. It was pleasing to note
that U2's appearance in such a modest venue felt extraordinary rather
than Madonna-does-Academy surreal. At no point did you find yourself
thinking 'What's that bunch of 40-year- old dads doing up there?' It was
a strange set, though. The lights were spare as they began with
impressive first showings of material from the open and engaging current
album All That You Can't Leave Behind . The devotional 'Stuck In A
Moment You Can't Get Out Of' was near perfect, Orbison meets Al Green,
something quite different for U2. 'Beautiful Day' thundered excitably by
and 'New York' was even better than on the record, swelling to one of
the most stirring crescendos of the night (stirring crescendos being a
U2 specialty).

There were a few older pleasers, too. The single which got them noticed
in the UK, 'I Will Follow', was fresh and pacy, while the aforementioned
'One' sent a shiver down your spine. Then, three quarters of the way
through, the band's energy unexpectedly drained away, as they finished
on a trio of nondescript tunes ('All I Want Is You' 'Bad' and 'Forty')
I'd forgotten or didn't recognise, and which reminded me why I've often
found these people so frustrating.

Where had it gone? And why had they chosen to leave the likes of
'Gloria', 'Pride', 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' and the peerless 'With Or
Without You' hanging on the vine? Afterwards, some contended that the
eccentric choice of material was admirable, others that it was a foolish
indulgence. In the end, I found myself wondering, 'Could that
performance have been worth pounds 800?', to which a friend countered in
exasperation, 'Andy, is anything worth pounds 800?'. And the answer is
that, yes, approximately 2,400 tea towels are.

2001, The Observer.

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