U2

For all their waning studio powers, Bono and his merry band still hit the mark on a politically poignant return to Belfast

Images from U2Start.com

It's a long time since U2 last played Belfast. Babies born in May 1998 are doing their A-levels next summer. It was three days before the Good Friday Agreement was ratified by referendum; three months, even, before the Omagh bombing.

And it doesn't take Bono long to acknowledge the omission: 'A lot has happened since the last time we were here,' he declares after a quickfire, decades-spanning rattle through 'The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)', 'The Electric Co', 'Vertigo' and 'I Will Follow', to a spartan backdrop – the better to emphasise the band's post-punk credentials. 'You are heroes to us. Thank you for your patience.' 

With all that has happened since – and Bono's famous appetite for grandstanding – the worry was that Bono would use the band's return to Belfast as an opportunity to step into the pulpit; to channel his religious upbringing and preach. He has his moments – this is Bono we're talking about, after all – but for the most part his judgement isn’t too far off, and sermons are kept to a minimum.

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In the run-up to the gig, all the talk had been of the planned segue between 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' and 'Raised By Wolves', the band's latest Troubles song. Far from inspiring a riot – as UUP councillor Jim Rodgers farcically warned – it is handled sensitively and even-handedly using the enormous video screens to convey the message, a mix of animation, images of victims and stark lettering asking us to remember all victims of violence – 'ALL' doubly emphasised.

You could argue that any attempt to directly address The Troubles at a rock concert is folly, or born of hubris, and you might have a point. Rightly or wrongly, U2 – perhaps still the biggest band in the world – have never shied away from the big issues. On this occasion it strikes the right note, and is unexpectedly moving.

Elsewhere we get the hits – good and bad – mixed with newer songs and some fan favourites – 'Until The End Of The World' sizzles and 'Pride' soars. Meanwhile, Bono stays true to the latest album Songs Of Innocence by examining his personal story more closely than usual, although this predictably causes the biggest lull of the evening.

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A segment focusing on his late mother and Dublin childhood strays too far into sentimentality, but a spare piano version of 'Every Breaking Wave', dedicated to his wife ('my first love and my last') far surpasses the overproduced studio version.

Somehow, the singer remains in magnificent voice. That aside, the overriding feeling is that this is a political show from a political band. What is most impressive about the U2 live experience is the way in which they weave together songs from their catalogue and set them to arresting imagery on the huge video screens, making connections and telling stories.

Thus, they manage to address the destruction of Syria and the European refugee crisis via a bravura sequence that joins the dots between 'October', a fired-up 'Bullet The Blue Sky', 'Zooropa' and 'Where The Streets Have No Name'.

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From there, 'Pride' and a transcendent 'With Or Without You' take the main set to an exultant climax. After an encore in which tribute is paid to the victims of Paris via 'City Of Blinding Lights', Bono barely has to sing a word of 'One' by himself.

You can (and I will) quibble with the setlist and the staging – 'The Sweetest Thing' has no business being anywhere near a setlist in 2015, 'Beautiful Day' remains trite nonsense and the entire 'Cedarwood Road' sequence, with Bono literally walking through an animated depiction of his childhood home, is frankly laughable.

But ultimately this is rock and roll as theatre from a band that – for all the hubris and their waning powers in the studio – still remains able to deliver live when it matters. When U2 really hit the mark, it feels like nothing less than communion. All these years on, Belfast can still use a bit of that.

U2 play the second of their two Belfast shows tonight (November 19) at the SSE Arena. Tickets are sold out.