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"The word suggests his shape, his vibe. There was a hearing-aid shop, Bonovox of O'Connell Street. I thought he looked like the place." — Guggi, on the origins of Bono's name

U2 at Wembley Stadium

- August 15, 2009

by Stephen Dalton

Writing about pop music, as one wag once remarked, is like dancing about architecture. Maybe so, but U2 spent more than two hours dancing around a stunning piece of architecture on the first British date of their latest tour last night — and the effect was highly impressive. Bizarre at times, perhaps, but a qualified triumph for vaulting ambition.

Now 20 nights into the first leg of their mammoth "360 degrees" tour, U2 appear to have ironed out most of the technical glitches and performance problems that left some early reviewers cold. Marking the first chapter in their long-term deal with the concert promotions giant Live Nation, this sell-out tour is already one of the most lucrative in rock history, grossing almost £240 million in its 40-plus dates, with more shows due next year.

Love them or loathe them, U2 have always put lung-bursting, sky-punching effort into their live shows. But this tour's real star attraction is not so much the band as their stage design, which almost justified the trip to Wembley on its own. For the first time in their 30-year career, U2 are touring in the round beneath a futuristic mega-sculpture, nicknamed The Claw, that would probably look more at home in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall than at a rock concert.

Standing a shade over 160 ft tall on four knobbly, cactus-like legs, this War of the Worlds superstructure is fitted with a glowing radio mast, suspended speakers and a huge circular video wall, which telescopes downwards into a multi-screen mosaic during The Unforgettable Fire and City of Blinding Lights. Dazzling stuff, even if it sometimes felt like the band themselves were stuck inside an enormous high-tech fishbowl.

Crashing straight into travelling salesmen mode, the band opened with four songs from their latest album, No Line On The Horizon. The single Get On Your Boots still felt like very much like the runt of the litter, but the stratospheric anthem Magnificent already belongs in the pantheon of U2 classics. Later in the show, a thunderous techno version of the band's new single, I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight, sounded pleasingly irreverent and hedonistic.

It also left many hardcore fans looking baffled, which I think is always a good sign.

Between wall-to-wall U2 classics, including an earth-shaking Elevation, a luminous I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For and a soulfully spartan Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of, Bono tried to sweet-talk the crowd with his blustery blarney. "It just struck me we're older than Wembley Stadium," the 49-year-old singer quipped. Paying homage to the "truly great city" of London, he randomly, and rather strangely, namechecked local boroughs and landmarks.

He also paid tribute to punk icon Joe Strummer by dropping a snatch of Rock The Casbah into Sunday, Bloody Sunday. He does a variation on this cheesy charm routine in every city, but nobody in Wembley seemed to mind.

Inevitably, Bono's soapbox philanthropy was woven into the musical mix. In what has become a standard feature on this tour, a section of the stadium's prime seating was raffled, with proceeds going to Aids and malaria charities. There were also tributes during the show to Nelson Mandela, a video message from Desmond Tutu and some windy waffle about world peace. As usual, the stirring solidarity anthem Walk On was dedicated to the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and accompanied by a parade of volunteers wearing masks of her face.

This was surrealist political theatre, bizarre but effective. Bono's sideline as the world's wealthiest Big Issue seller may incense his critics, but it lends essential moral weight to U2's windy bombast. Without their missionary zeal, what would they be? Bon Jovi with shorter hair: not a fate we should wish on anybody.

Closing with a stadium-gospel version of With or Without You and Moment of Surrender, this show struck an impressive balance between old-school passion and futuristic presentation. It is a very healthy development because U2's two other tours this decade played it far too safe, revisiting the guitar-chugging sincerity of their 1980s roots.

This super-sized spectacle owes more to the high-tech razzle-dazzle of their glitzy 1990s shows. If there is a point to any band being as preposterously huge as U2, it is in a duty to be this creatively ambitious, stretching stadium rock to the point of upstaging themselves. A small step for mankind, perhaps, but a giant leap for architecture.

(c) The Times, 2009.

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