Apart from maybe Bruce Springsteen playing a show in New Jersey, the most powerful homecoming in rock’n’roll has got to be U2 landing in Dublin after a worldwide trek.
The last time they were cool (if ever) was the Achtung Baby and Zooropa years in the 90s, and you’ll spot ‘Bono is a Pox’ scrawled on a few walls on the northside, but these three Dublin gigs from the prodigal sons are a massive deal.
This time round there seems to be more at stake. Their three shows at Croke Park in 2009 were part of the 360° tour that ended up becoming the biggest show in history — with that ‘Claw’ the biggest display of U2’s rock excess in their 30-odd years.
They even managed to cause a row with the locals about sound pollution over the dismantling of the claw — with the resulting protest maybe a recruitment drive for the Garth Brooks fiasco a few years down the line.
But six years later, the four lads from the suburbs have released their first album that’s firmly rooted in their upbringing in 1970s Dublin. After decades of largely abstract catch-all sentiments and universal nonspecific choruses, Songs of Innocence puts U2 in Talbot Street, Cedarwood Road and teenage bedrooms listening to The Clash and The Ramones.
Swaggering tracks like The Ballad of Joey Ramone and Volcano re-engage with their earlier post-punk vigour, and Raised By Wolves is another classic politically charged track — about the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombs that has become one of the main centrepieces of the Innocence + Experience tour.
But even with Bono’s brazen cheek, the most famous band in the world won’t lose themselves in the act of playing kids with fire in their bellies. Besides Bono’s gob getting himself into face-palm situations with U2’s army of haters, on stage they stick to the script of fully-engaged earnest rock’n’roll. Reviews for the Innocence + Experience have been pretty positive, even from previous naysayers.
With decades of playing in stadiums, surrounded by 100ft control towers, suspended Trabant cars, disco ball lemons and garish golden arches, the new multimedia show has been praised for its minimal aesthetic. Of course with U2, ‘minimal’ is all relative, and there’s always a groan when 10,000 arena shows are described as ‘intimate’ — but there seems to have been a genuine attempt to engage with the crowd, on a central walkway, and turning tracks like Sunday Bloody Sunday into a tribute to all the lives lost in the Troubles.
The huge suspended ‘toaster’ hi-def screen that beams impressionistic images of Bono’s childhood, the grainy Ireland of the late 70s memories and victims of bombings is a spectacular touch, without the garishness of previous tours.
But before semi-neutral fans are scared away by thoughts of a heritage act only playing the dreaded ‘new stuff’, remember U2 are a band firmly in tune with their own legacy and their back catalogue.
The idea of them not playing Where the Streets Have No Name, Mysterious Ways, Pride or I Will Follow would be heresy in their hometown — they know their place, and they also know that a good portion of the crowd are one gig in a blue moon folk. There won’t be any self-indulgence beyond the general rock’n’roll excess they trade on. And we can also guarantee they won’t be focusing too much on their 2009 misstep No Line on the Horizon.
In the acceptance speech when U2 were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, Bono said that “rock’n’roll is the sound of revenge”, but this time round the block U2 aren’t being confrontational. You may cringe every time Bono talks about rock’n’roll as a life force, but with all the talk in the past year of going back to their roots, there’s no better place than Dublin to call his bluff, at your peril.
Printed in Irish Daily Star