The variety of old tour t-shirts making their way up O’Connell St were outnumbered only by the range of accents heard as the crowd turned towards Parnell St and on to Croke Park.
The Irish leg of any U2 tour is never just another date on the schedule, but the night the die-hard fans around the world immediately look for when planning their pilgrimage to the home of Bono and the boys.
Those fans have amassed over 30 years now and, on Saturday, were rewarded with a gig that dropped any pretence of being a showcase for new material and instead gave a two-hour set of the hits that spawned U2’s loyal following.
Even the support act was in on the plan.
“Enjoy the local band up next,” Noel Gallagher quipped as he left the stage, having given a performance indicative of what was to come.
Despite releasing two post-Liam breakup albums with his High Flying Birds, Gallagher’s repertoire is Oasis-heavy, not that anyone in the crowd seemed to mind.
U2 are, above all, crowd-pleasing showmen and so they proved with a show of three parts. The quartet took to a smaller stage in the crowd to deliver the first act, a selection of pre-Joshua Tree hits, and later closed the show with some numbers from the 1990s onwards.
Larry Mullen Jr led the way as the band emerged and the Hogan Stand shook to the opening drums of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, while the entire stadium roared the chorus to a beautifully delivered ‘Bad’ and rousing rendition of ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’.
Having devoured a starter of sublime pre-1987 hits, the crowd lapped up the main course.
The giant high-definition screen behind the stage turned a blood red as the band retreated from their outpost to deliver the album at the heart of tonight’s gig from the main stage.
As the show went on, the vivid HD screen displays stunning footage shot by long-time collaborator Anton Corbijn, who provided beautifully-shot cinematic landscapes to back the Joshua Tree tunes.
There aren’t too many albums that can boast an opening trio of the calibre of The Joshua Tree. The Edge’s intro to ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ had the hairs on arms standing before Bono opened his mouth, while ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and ‘With or Without You’ retained their resonance with an obliging audience.
Age hasn’t dulled the rage with which Bono punches the words for ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’, and, at one point, the frontman remarked that “nothing changes, everything changes”.
Nowhere in this set was that more evident than ‘Running to Stand Still’ which hauntingly depicts a heroin epidemic in Dublin which, 30 years on, remains unsolved.
Live, frenzied black and white shots of the band replaced Corbijn’s footage for a fantastically frenetic ‘Exit’ before ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ prompts a phonescreen-lit vigil prior to the encore of a selection of U2’s post-80s hits.
Monochrome close-ups on the big screen paved the way for a vivid video of Syrian refugee camps as ‘Miss Sarajevo’ was reimagined for a modern humanitarian crisis.
The multicoloured ‘Beautiful Day’ was followed by the stadium-rock-by-numbers of ‘Elevation’ and ‘Vertigo’, and the big screen paid tribute to heroic and influential women from Ireland and abroad for ‘Ultraviolet (Light My Way)’.
The show was peppered with the usual crowd-pleasing shoutouts you’d expect by now: Backing for the Rugby World Cup bid, name-checking the President and Taoiseach in the audience, solemn thanks to the Naval Service for its work in the Mediterranean.
In terms of music, there were no surprises on Saturday night; the setlist was a carbon copy of previous shows on the tour. The only rabbit-from-a-hat moment was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fly-by from a French team called Patrouille Tranchant, participating in the Bray Air Display at the weekend, which left a trail of tricolour smoke in its wake.
U2 have their critics, and many of these were given ammunition with U2’s repertoire on Saturday night. The show closer was an underwhelming number from their latest album, and that and 2004’s ‘Vertigo’ stood out as the gig’s only songs that aren’t old enough to be able to order a beer.
The Joshua Tree Tour may be U2’s tacit admission that they are moving from a creative force into heritage rock territory but, at the same time, what a heritage to mine.
The rapturous reception that greeted the songs of The Joshua Tree — and the gig’s preceding hits that would take pride of place in any mainstream rock band’s setlist — prove that U2 not only captured a zeitgeist with their 1987 album, they released a bone fide generation-defining classic.
This weekend’s show posed even Bono’s fiercest detractors a difficult question: Name any other singer, band, or artist who could, would, or ever will sell out a night in Croke Park, and a worldwide stadium tour, off the strength of an album they released 30 years previously.
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