Refusing to rehash past glories, the world's least complacent band returns to the UK tonight on its latest tour
Andrew Mueller, The Times
Bono is introducing the stage set on U2's first of two night in Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb. "How do you like our space junk?" he calls. The concerts on the 360º tour are delivered from beneath a vast edifice that does indeed resemble a landing craft (aptly, the show's introductory fanfare is David Bowie's Space Oddity). Four pillars, swaddled in reflective khaki and studded with orange nodules, support immense racks of speakers, lights, and a conical screen which, when it descends from the contraption's innards, resembles the ignition of a booster rocket preparing for lift-off. "We built it," Bono continues, "to take ourselves interesting places."
This raises 62,000 cheers. Tonight is U2's first show in Croatia, and their first in the former Yugoslavia since 1997, when they took their gaudy PopMart circus to Sarajevo. "We also built it," Bono says, "to get closer to you. Intimacy on a grand scale. That's what we were going for."
Intimacy on a grand scale. It's a declaration Bono could have made at any point in the 33 years since U2 formed at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, in the knowledge that it would be understood by the band's adherents and derided by their detractors. But whichever of those legions one marches with, there's no disputing the singular nature of what they have accomplished. With very few exceptions (and most of those solo artists: Dylan, Springsteen, Cohen, Young), rock artists who last do so by trading largely in nostalgia. U2 have outrun countless peers by doing the opposite. At every show on this tour so far, the first four songs have all come from No Line on the Horizon, the latest album.
The first night in Zagreb is a strange, interesting U2 show, perhaps derailed slightly by the early unfurling of One, which has served most of its life as an encore. What follows it is uneven, but with dazzling peaks. Edge and Bono duet on an acoustic Stay (Faraway, So Close!), Unforgettable Fire is fragile yet mighty, Vertigo still the best Pixies song the Pixies never wrote, and the current single I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight is souped up into a monstrous barrage of deranged disco. Such is the restlessness of U2: most bands would wait a while before dramatically rewriting songs from their current album.
"That's always part of the process," smiles the Edge (born David Howell Evans) over lunch the following day. "After two weeks of playing, you realise, shit, that's what it should be." During last night's show, the crowd had sung him a lusty Happy Birthday. It feels impossible that it was only the his 48th: for anyone who has listened to rock'n'roll these last three decades, U2 have been uniquely constant. They've maintained an unchanged line-up -- and, more amazingly, maintained the four-way friendship between Edge, Bono, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.
They've survived the stresses of colossal commercial triumph (most notably The Joshua Tree, in 1987, which has sold more than 25 million copies) and calamitous hubris (1988's Rattle & Hum album and movie, which established a reputation for earnest portentousness that U2 spent most of the 1990s working to dismantle).
They continue to attract stadiumfuls of succeeding generations with records that refuse to rehash past glories. The Edge does not appear to believe that the secret is any great secret. "It's just still so much fun," he shrugs. "Though I'm not sure I'd be enjoying it quite so much if we were still going up and down the M1 in a coach, playing clubs." As opposed to commuting between a Côte d'Azur villa and European stadiums on a private jet with your group's name painted on the tail.
"We're very lucky," he understates. "But there's never a moment of, 'ho hum, here we go again'. Some nights don't go off quite as big, but I always think that's our fault.
"Ironically I had an awful show in Poland, personally, the other night. I didn't play well, had lots of stupid technical problems, was just uncomfortable all night. And it was one of the best shows of the tour. You can also have the best show you've had for weeks and for whatever reason the chemistry doesn't go off. It's humbling, in a good way -- you realise, 'Oh, I don't really matter that much.'"
Leaving for work with Bono is not easy. The crowds outside the stately Esplanade hotel are polite, but there are a few hundred of them, most younger than Boy, many younger than Achtung Baby. I climb into the van waiting to deliver the singer to the stadium while Bono signs T-shirts, shakes hands, poses for pictures and accepts gifts. One fan with a booming baritone declaims vaguely congruent U2 lyrics. Bono's ears prick at "Booo-Nooo! It takes a second to say goodbye!" (an obscure choice from U2's second album, War). "Actually," replies Bono, smiling at the throng, "it takes more than a few minutes."
U2's 48 hours in Zagreb have epitomised the cruelty of touring -- you travel the world, and see none of it but hotels, venues, and the view out the window of the car between them. How do you figure out the right thing to say to 62,000 locals you've never met before? "I think about it during the day," Bono says, "take some quiet time before the show. Sometimes I dig up research, like on that poet I quoted last night [the 17th-century Croatian writer Ivan Gundulic]. And from the One office [One International, the anti-poverty advocacy organisation Bono co-founded] I get a brief on what's going on in the country for the last while, and pretty soon . . . you're a bleedin' expert."
He laughs, which he does often, and generally at his own expense.
"All the west Balkans have had their share of brutality. Everyone in the region has this recent past that reminds them how thin a skin civilisation is." Something which could also be said of U2's homeland. "Indeed," Bono agrees. "Right at the centre of a contradiction, that's the place to be."
Bono's comfort with contradictions can be assessed by trying to think of someone else who would have felt at home introducing George W. Bush at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in 2006, and playing at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. "Yeah," he nods. "Because that has been the story of our lives, and particularly my own -- Catholic father, Protestant mother, and not just pretending to be both as a matter of necessity, but actually being both. I think I've always been there, I think the band have always been there, and we seem to enjoy compromising situations."
How weird does being in U2 now feel? "It has never felt less weird," he says. "We've come out the end of a storm. The thunder and lightning that fame feels like when you're 20 turns out to be a little bit of inclement weather, not really worth hiding indoors from. You realise you don't actually have to have your life turned upside down, you can have a family, and you don't have to end up in rehab. There are more interesting viruses to catch than the common cold called self-consciousness."
Is it that U2 are roaming universes uncharted by a rock band that obliges them to keep going, to see what happens next? "I don't imagine that this will continue ad infinitum," he says. "But I hope it does. There's something very strong when the four of us walk into a building. I'm pretty famous so I'm used to walking into a room and having people look up, but when it's the four of us the hairs on their necks stand up. What they don't know is that that's what's happening to us as well. Which is really the bit that I'd still like to figure out.
"Age is an irrelevance. I mean, I think about the Clash, and I would be so interested -- what would they be digging up now?"
The second night in Zagreb is tighter than the first, and less emotionally askew, possibly because One is returned to its encore slot. For Mysterious Ways, U2 are joined by a girl from the audience, who'd been brandishing a sign advertising her prowess as a belly dancer. Bono asks her name, and the crowd chant it enthusiastically: Simona will probably be president in ten years. As she descends from the stage, Bono treads warily through a brief homily to the proud and ancient traditions of the region. He knows his stuff: someone who seeks the centre of contradictions finds nowhere more inspiring and maddening than the Balkans.
"But the past is only to be respected so much," he says. "Never more than the present or the future. And truly, that's how we feel about our band."
The song this introduces, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, is 22 years old. Its pertinence is undiminished.
U2 start the UK leg of their tour tonight at Wembley Stadium, www.u2.com
Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.