U2, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Sydney Cricket Ground
22 November, 2019
For 43 years Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr have been playing music together. From Dublin bars to stadiums across the world, they’re one of the few legendary bands to boast such longevity with their original lineup – something that Bono would give gratitude and praise for across an epic night of jaw-dropping sound and visuals as they took a grand trip through the musical history of the band, with their magnum opus’ The Joshua Tree as its centrepiece.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds landed on stage as the Friday evening rain began to slowly ease but that didn’t stop him from giving it to the “fucking pussies’ wearing ponchos and describing the weather as a normal day in Manchester before guaranteeing that the rain would stop before U2 took to the stage because, as he said “they’ll be back there praying”. His was a set that balanced his solo material (including the stomping glam excellence of Holy Mountain that kicked things off) with a handful of Oasis songs (Wonderwall, Don’t Look Back In Anger, Stop Crying Your Heart Out, Little By Little) and a fine version of The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love. The weather and the image of the band closely gathered amongst tents and dwarfed by the imposing video screen, slightly dampened the impact of their performance but Gallagher was a fine choice of opening act to warm-up the arriving audience.
As the floodlights faded to black the spotlights pierced the night to reveal a drum kit and four figures in close formation at the front of the section of the stage that stretched out into the audience, shaped as a perfect reflection of the imposing Joshua Tree image towering above. This was a trip back to U2’s early days, a snapshot of those formative songs that thrust them onto radio and into bedrooms around the world – and what a way to start. Sunday Bloody Sunday, I Will Follow, New Year’s Day, Bad and Pride (In The Name Of Love). Any other band would end their show with iconic songs of that ilk. Sonically they were spot on, possessing the same rawness and vitality as they did all those years ago. Bad was the first mention of, and generous tribute to, Michael Hutchence who died on this day, in this city 22 years ago, with Bono interlacing the song with snippets of Never Tear Us Apart.
Then came the big moment, the reveal of the scale, resolution and theatrical impact of that massive (almost 8k) LED video screen, the largest ever used in a touring show. It was a moment that recalled the ambition and immersion of the ZOO TV tour yet a total contrast with its serenity and Anton Corbijn’s desert and American-themed focus versus the dizzying overload of that early 90s stage design.
Playing The Joshua Tree in full does present some issues, primarily that the album is heavily front-loaded with the hits – Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You – followed by the slash and burn dystopia of Bullet The Blue Sky. It was an incredible 20 mins, the core of what made that album and this concert so great. It also highlighted the singularity of the Edge’s guitar playing and the anthemic soulfulness of Bono’s voice, still sounding as strong as it ever has. The rest of the album set possessed numerous highlights, particularly the dark throb of Exit and In God’s Country, yet it felt like it had peaked early. That said, as an album performance, every song was essential to the overarching narrative and it was a perfectly executed presentation, devoid of retrograde nostalgia.
We’d had the first set contextualising the early years, the widescreen deep dive into The Joshua Tree and so it was time to bring it home with an eight song run that included three songs from Achtung Baby but drew mostly from the U2 of the new millennium, including the brash and insipid Elevation and Vertigo which surprisingly were contenders for the biggest response of the night. In those moments one realised how well the band successfully recalibrated themselves to a new commercial audience for the third act of their career. The closing highlights included a touching tribute to Hutchence with Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of and Ultraviolet (Light My Way) which was dedicated to the trailblazing women of the world, featuring images including Australians Madga Szubanski, Hannah Gadsby and Cathy Freeman. U2 left us with the low key/high impact One – a contender for one of the finest songs the band have written – as a sea of cellphone lights lit up the Sydney Cricket Ground in a heartwarming end to a show that deserves equal status and accolades with the band’s iconic Zoo TV tour.
Aside from the cavalcade of songs that are cultural landmarks of modern rock music, the brilliance of the show was that even though it clearly involved an incredible amount of large-scale planning and precise execution, it was delivered with a simple, direct and ultimately powerfully artistic vision.