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Three Songs No Flash

U2 Live Under A Slate Grey Claw: Chris Roberts Reports From Wembley
Chris Roberts , August 17th, 2009 05:31

Giant contraption fails to divert attention away from the fact that Irish megastars aren't quite as good as they used to be. Gallery of band close-ups, Jim Dyson

So this is what the biggest audience for a Wembley Stadium gig ever — 88,000 people — looks like. It’s not staggering, or breathtaking, or anything like that. There’s one good moment during 'Mysterious Ways' where they all appear to be waving side to side in perfect time like a field of corn in a breeze, a host of singing-along daffodils, but generally there’s a curious lack of atmosphere. I’m not here to jump on any U2-are-dead bandwagon; that’d be cheap. But the mega-expensive stage set, lights, films etc don’t compensate for the absence of euphoric moments. It’s entertaining in phases, and some of those surging old intros still scrape away your scepticism, but considering the scale, everything seems a tad subdued. The sound’s lousy, thin, tinny.

I suppose it’s all about The Claw. This Claw thing is over sixty feet high and recalls nothing so precisely as David Bowie’s ill-fated Glass Spider Tour. The Glass Spider commonly comes top of those Worst Rock Follies lists, and whenever I try to stick up for its glorious preposterousness I get shooed away because that wouldn’t fit with the carved-in-stone conservative rock canon. Yet The Claw, and the 360 degrees theme here, is like the received wisdom about The Glass Spider rather than the bonkers, constantly shifting, genuinely surreal whirl of Brownian Motion that it was. Basically, The Claw just stands there, straddling the ant-like musicians. While it’s still daylight, it looks rubbish. A pale-green arc of tarpaulin with orange splodges along it, it’s best described by my companion as “an alien lizard nipple train”. It’s barely that interesting. And the idea of the circular stage “in the round”, with bridges and walkways, is just confusing, disorientating. We always feel like we’re side-on, like the view is never quite right. With the four blokes from U2 wandering around it at random intervals, often detached from each other by some distance, it detracts from the focus rather than fuelling it. You need, like, thirty eight dancers and a juggler or two if you’re trying to fill that kind of sprawling area. There seems at times to be no centre of gravity to the show. It’s not “intimate”, because nothing at Wembley could be. It’s one big design flaw, dreamed up by someone who once saw Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia but then drank too much sangria before committing it to memory.

It comes into its own, to an extent, as darkness falls. Then, its flood of changing colours and lights and close-ups and footage and slogans does begin to gain traction. At one point, steam is coming off it and ascending to the heavens. And yet its layout, its shape, means this production is never as exhilarating as earlier U2 grandstanding blow-outs. The witty, wiry, Zooropa/Pop era said much more about over-stimulation, multi-media exhaustion, trash and glitz, and how they are soul-destroying yet shine a light on any soul that survives. So it’s not without irony that the best parts of tonight come only when we’re all acclimatised to The Claw and begin to pretty much ignore it. It’s no coincidence that by then U2 have eased up on tracks from the new album and swung into 'Pride (In The Name Of Love)', 'Where The Streets Have No Name', 'Vertigo' et al. 'One' is a lovely, trembling encore, despite its over-familiarity, though it’s a pity that one by-product of its fame is that U2 don’t play the better, darker, less optimistic Achtung Baby tracks ('So Cruel', 'Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?'). And in fairness No Line On The Horizon boasts two home runs in the nervy, Bowie-like 'Unknown Caller' and the testily great and cleverly pre-emptive 'I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight'.

Of course, there was a bit of impeccable politics (Burma), a bit of irrational posturing (Bono quoting Clash lyrics) and no shortage of rushes-and-chills guitar lines. And I’m not saying we weren’t gabbling on excitedly about the whole sense-wrangling experience for most of the journey home. But even Bono seemed a bit reticent (by his standards) tonight. I dunno, maybe he had a poorly tummy or something. But from a band which prides itself on engaging and involving the crowd, it was lukewarm. One wonders if these are the last days of U2’s relevance as giants. If U2 was a blockbuster Hollywood movie, this felt like the sixth or seventh sequel (with the cast and director losing interest). Diminishing returns, and that. To come back in a different form may liberate them.

This all sounds too negative. It was pretty good. But far from spectacular. Elbow are rarely spectacular, but now easily Britain’s strongest band. The Seldom Seen Kid may have been the tipping point, but all their albums were that tender and affecting and muscular. Somehow Guy Garvey connects with the crowd more via average-bloke chumminess and a conventional stage set-up than anyone could via a squillion dollars worth of The Claw. Of course Elbow climax with 'One Day Like This'. They may well be headlining here within a year or two, but let’s hope they don’t then feel a need for exploding space rockets and catherine wheels the size of Luxembourg. Then again...

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