The last time I saw U2 perform was a decade ago at their 360° Tour in the Reliant Stadium of Houston, Texas. The band last performed in New Zealand on the same tour in 2010. Needless to say, the air was crackling with excitement as the sold-out audience couldn’t wait to revisit one of the most prominent rock albums in the late 80s.
Before the gates of the stadium were opened, a select group of media representatives from New Zealand and Australia were invited to U2’s soundcheck and also got to meet Bono, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr and The Edge. We got to see and hear the band ‘re-learn’ some of their songs from the album. “It’s not like riding a bike”, joked Bono and Larry. It wasn’t just about playing the same songs but to find ways to make them better added legendary guitarist, The Edge.
Standing on the ‘B-stage’ (which was built to reflect a perfect shadow of the tree on the main stage screen), I had a brief chat with set designer and stage director, Willie Williams. He talked about the groundbreaking achievements that U2 have done over the years, from “The Claw” in the 360° Tour to the present the largest un-obscured and highest resolution LED video screen (almost 8k) ever used in a touring show. The 200 x 45 ft custom built screen is painted to look like a golden piece of cardboard and features a silver Joshua Tree. The tree extends above the screen and becomes the visual centrepiece of the show.
As the stadium began to fill up, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds started their opening set. Surrounded by former bandmates from Oasis, Gem Archer (guitars), Mike Rowe (keyboards), Chris Sharrock (drums) and Russell Pritchard from The Zutons on bass, Noel Gallagher belted out songs from his solo album which included This Is The Place, Black Star Rising and new song, Wandering Star.
I find one is either taken or repelled by Noel Gallagher’s solo work. The same can be said about his infamous brother, Liam. Noel’s songs are pleasant, danceable with the typical pop sensibilities but not memorable. However, the addition of a small horn section and the backing vocals of YSEE, Jessica Greenfield and Charlotte Marionneau livened up the songs significantly on stage.
Wonderwall, Stop Crying Your Heart Out and Don’t Look Back In Anger satisfied the crowd’s hunger for some Oasis classics and Noel ended with the Beatles' All You Need Is Love. A nice touch to finish his opening set, I must admit.
The Whole of the Moon by British-Irish folk-rock band The Waterboys heralded the start of The Joshua Tree show. A fitting choice since the album explores the roots of Irish and American music. A familiar rhythmic pattern by Larry on drums welcomed the rest of his bandmates to the B-stage as Sunday Bloody Sunday started up with the whole stadium lit up in bloody red. New Year’s Day followed with crystal clear sound infused with a bone-chilling South-Easterly wind.
The classic Edge guitar sound fueled Bad and Bono sounded better that I last heard him 10 years ago in Houston. The four bandmates clustered around the drum kit as they performed, showing a bond as strong as ever. Pride (In The Name of Love) - the penultimate anthem for social justice rang out loud coupled with moving words and provocative messages on the main screen. Stadium rock in its purest form with The Edge again showing his signature sound and Adam with Larry driving the rhythm section.
U2 hit the main stage to perform The Joshua Tree album from start to finish. The gigantic main screen came alive with black and white images of an endless road through Death Valley as the band perform Where The Streets Have No Name. Glorious images from Zabriskie Point and other locations by Dutch photographer, film-maker and long term collaborator, Anton Corbijn filled the screen during I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With or Without You.
Amazing real-time video effects were introduced during Bullet the Blue Sky with Bono holding onto a video cam and mini spotlight to project images on the main screen. The apocalyptic mood was further heightened as thick plumes of smoke swept through the crowd with the cold wind. The Edge goes to piano and Bono’s shows off his strong and versatile vocals on Running To Stand Still. The whole stadium reflected on the call to love as the last melancholy notes of Bono’s harmonica faded away.
The custom-built screen that is made up of 1,040 individual video panels is a behemoth of tech wizardry. The images were not only sharp and crisp on-screen but the transition and motion from edge to edge is seamless and just beautiful to watch. The stage lighting perfectly matched with HD cameras on boom arms to project each member of the band. It is no wonder that U2 with Willie Williams and his team are at the forefront of cutting edge stage productions while continually setting new industry standards.
Side 2 of The Joshua Tree starts off with Red Hill Town featuring a colourful Salvation Army band accompanying U2 on screen. The Joshua Tree symbol in various shades of fluorescent echo a screaming guitar solo from The Edge In God’s Country while Adam’s bassline subtly pushed one’s conscience about actions to preserve and protect the world we all share.
New Zealand will always be a special place for U2, thanks to the late Greg Carroll who was a close friend and member of the U2 crew. The band joined Bono to pay their respects to their friend by visiting One Tree Hill near Auckland’s Cornwall Park and also to share this glorious song on the tour. A new set of visuals, albeit more ‘trippy’ in nature accompanied Exit before the more sombre notes of Mothers of the Disappeared. The main set then ended with Angel of Harlem.
After repeated shouts and screams for more, U2 returned with Bono in face makeup to show off his megalomaniac side. Here was another side of the show from ‘island people’ to ‘island people’ as Bono assured everyone there was no other place they would rather be than in Aotearoa.
The encore started with Elevation and Vertigo with dazzling patterns on the main screen. The disco-ish Even Better Than The Real Thing also had a mirror disco ball right up the top of the giant stage. After Bono wiped off his face-paint, he took on a more vulnerable side to sing perhaps one of the best tracks in the evening, Every Breaking Wave with The Edge back on keyboards.
Another special moment during the show was Ultra Violet (Light My Way) that featured photos of women pioneers and trailblazers in bold dazzling colours across the giant screen, in support of the ONE organisation’s Poverty Is Sexist campaign.
Lastly, Bono dedicated the beautiful ballad, One to the victims of the Christchurch Mosque Shootings on 15 March 2019 (some who actually travelled up to be at the show) and to New Zealanders for responding to the horror in a gracious and exemplary manner.
It is a fine line for any band to use technological marvels and dazzling colours to stay fresh in the minds of their fans and listeners. U2 and their world-class team manage to stay on top of cutting edge stage production without drawing fans away from the music - minimal backing tracks, just four talented musicians on stage performing their songs with ultimate passion. You can expect the highest high when The Joshua Tree Tour comes to town!