Band’s first show in city since 1997 combined big songs with overwhelming visuals
You expect a lot of pomp and bombast from the word go at U2 concerts. It’s just how they tend to (rock and) roll. Sure enough, Bono’s entrance - a stately swagger up a long central catwalk, one arm held aloft - to the Patti Smith song The People Have the Power, set the expected tone. But this time, alongside the prancing and posturing and high-octane showmanship, there was something different: a new desire to reach out and connect with the audience, to tell them a story, to bring them on a journey.
Perhaps this was due, at least in part, to the context. The Belfast show in the SSE arena was the band’s first gig after their cancelled Paris concerts, and although the terrorist attacks were not referenced until the very close of the night, there was a sense of heightened emotion, defiance and solidarity in the air.
It was also the first time that U2 had played Belfast since 1997, which meant that the crowd greeted them like long-lost cousins.
And what a story this band can tell. The visual impact of the show was extraordinary, even overwhelming at times, especially during their new song Raised By Wolves, which was inspired by the car bombs that killed 33 people in Dublin and Monaghan on May 17th, 1974.
The centrepiece of the set was a vast metal cage, suspended over the catwalk, carrying a series of LED screens which flashed images, messages, film footage, and newsreels.
The effect was almost hallucinatory. At one point the set-up allowed Bono to walk down the street of his childhood home, Cedarwood Road; on another occasion he grew to the size of a giant, and appeared to be lifting The Edge in the palm of his hand.
Later, a woman was plucked from the audience, and given a camera to film the band on a live-stream as she danced with them.
“That’s what the technology is all about - getting close to people,” said Bono.
Sometimes it was all too much. It was disorienting to see pictures of distressed refugees, or bombed-out Syrian towns, while Bono boomed Bullet the Blue Sky through a megaphone, and audience members swayed drunkenly, plastic pint glasses slopping in each hand.
The big songs were all there, of course: Vertigo, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Pride, With or Without You, Beautiful Day.
But in many ways, the music was just the soundtrack to the visuals.