U2 review – this may be a heritage act, but it sure isn't history

Twickenham Stadium
Bono and the band’s Joshua Tree gig is nostalgic only in theory – it oozes contemporary confidence and command. They are totally in their element

The night before the first European date of U2’s 2017 Joshua Tree Tour, listeners to Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 request show were favoured with a surprise. Among the phone messages from families stuck in traffic en route to caravan parks, eager to hear the B-52s’ Love Shack, there came an unexpected call from Bono, talking up his band’s forthcoming gigs. “It’s a very modern show,” he insisted. “We play The Joshua Tree as if it was released last week. It’s not a nostalgia show.”

It seemed a slightly odd way to describe a gig that centres around a complete performance of a 30-year-old album and that, from the opening Sunday Bloody Sunday (from War) to the final encore of Oasis’s Don’t Look Back In Anger, complete with support act Noel Gallagher on vocals, features only one song that isn’t well into its teens: The Little Things That Give You Away, from Songs of Experience, the forthcoming, delayed follow-up to 2014’s Songs of Innocence. But U2 have been warily banging this particular drum since announcing that their latest tour would involve them playing in its entirety their 25m-selling 1987 album. “It’s important for us that this doesn’t rest on any kind of spirit of nostalgia,” The Edge told a heritage rock magazine in May.

Ever since Brian Wilson minted the idea a decade and a half ago, virtually every artist imaginable has opted to perform a classic album live: looking at the current gig schedules, which feature amiable Brummie also-rans the Twang playing their debut album in its entirety, it’s hard not to feel the vogue may now have reached some kind of saturation point, where the definition of “classic” is being stretched to its elastic limit. But none of them have appeared as openly conflicted about the idea as U2. It seems to be an article of faith within their ranks that they are not a heritage rock act – the kind of band who’ve come to an accommodation with their past, realised their greatest work is behind them and pragmatically opted to give the people what they want – even though they must know in their hearts that only the most die-hard fan buys tickets to see them play latterday material: you suspect that the proportion of the vast crowd in Twickenham with their fingers crossed for Get on Your Boots or The Miracle of Joey Ramone rather than New Years’ Day is pretty slender.

But if U2 see the show as an uncomfortable compromise, it isn’t apparent on stage. You’re occasionally struck by the sense of old material being given a lick of contemporaneity – the lyrics of Pride are amended to reference Alan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian whose body washed up on a Turkish beach; Exit, a song about the mind of a murderer, is preceded by a clip from a 50s TV series called Trackdown, featuring a shyster called Trump who claims he can save a small town by building a wall – and, disdain for nostalgia or not, a certain reflective mood prevails. There is the usual hokey but effective between-song rabble rousing – Bono persists in addressing the audience as “rainbow people from the streets of London”, the knowing smirk of the Zoo TV era now a distant memory. And there are ruminations on long-forgotten London venues, old band associates and the late Kirsty MacColl.

The Edge and Bono on Saturday.
The Edge and Bono on Saturday. Photograph: Richard Isaac/Rex/Shutterstock

But more striking still is how commanding and confident their performance seems, particularly given that it’s not without risks. They elect to play the opening songs without using the vast screen behind them, forcing the audience to concentrate on the band members performing on a small stage in the centre of the crowd, while The Joshua Tree itself arrives toploaded with anthems – its first three tracks are Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You – but ends with the downbeat, distinctly un-anthemic Mothers of the Disappeared. In fact, for all the American imagery on the vast ultra-HD screen behind them, the most intriguing thing about their performance of The Joshua Tree material is how clearly it highlights U2’s musical roots: with its reggae-ish bassline, splinters of echoing feedback and noticeable lack of a chorus, Bullet the Blue Sky sounds like nothing so much as a bold attempt to turn the experiments of post-punk into something stadium-sized.

It works, as does everything else U2 do tonight: from interpolating David Bowie’s Heroes and Where Are We Now? into Bad, to performing dwarfed by Anton Corbijn’s films of immense Zabriskie Point vistas. Even Bono’s harmonica playing is greeted with a delighted roar rather than the yelp of horror it warrants. However conflicted they feel about the concept behind The Joshua Tree shows, and whether or not you buy the oft-repeated line about their revulsion to nostalgia, on stage they seem entirely in their element, as imperious as they were when the album at its centre made them the biggest band in the world.

• This article was amended on 9 July 2017. An earlier version gave the wrong release order of U2’s albums. Songs of Innocence was released in 2014, and Songs of Experience is the title of the band’s forthcoming album, not the other way round as an earlier version had it.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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