U2 at Croke Park

CNI discovers what fans of the biggest band in the world can expect

The gig marked a triumphant return. The fab four chose to kick off the Vertigo tour in an old-fashioned sports arena on the out-skirts of the naval town. Home of the local ice hockey team (no mean feat on the Pacific coast just along from Tijuana), the 14,000 capacity hall had none of the bells or whistles of a purpose built, state-of-the-art arena.

Ahead of the show, manager Paul McGuinness was extolling the virtues of the place to all within earshot, delighted there were no exclusive corporate boxes bearing down. U2, it seemed, wanted to get dirt under their nails and get close to their fans in this slightly battered, curious bowl.

If this was an early indication that they were laying over-elaborate monster gigs and gigantic lemons to rest forever, then the back to the beginning ethic was reinforced quickly when they dug deep into their extensive back catalogue with a set rich in old tracks and reworked versions of more familiar anthems. With The Killers and The Bravery riding high on an 80's influenced wave playing their own brand of old-school, stripped down electronica, U2 obviously felt the time was right to show the upstarts some of the simple post-punk new wave tunes from that era that made their name.

They played a clutch from their 1980 debut Boy including ‘Electric Co.’ and ‘An Cat Dubh’; they worked through several searing tracks from 1983’s War – their first UK number one – including a shuddering ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, ‘I Will Follow’ and a set closing ‘40’ (a song they hadn’t played in two decades).

Tracks from How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb were woven throughout with ‘Vertigo’, ‘All Because Of You’ and a glorious ‘Miracle Drug’ being big highlights. But it was the old songs sounding fresh and new that gave this show a special twist.

‘We're going to take it back to where it started for us,’ announced Bono as they launched into 'Cry' three tracks in.

Playing on a small circular stage bordered with a wide runway – similar to that they employed on 2001's 'Elevation' tour – U2 got to the stage bang on time at 9pm. The Edge, Larry Mullen Jnr and Adam Clayton ambled out first looking, despite the deafening roar from the 14,000 fans, like they were just taking a gentle evening stroll. They kicked straight into 'City Of Blinding Lights' from the new album, and as a large net curtain-of-lights backdrop was lowered and tickertape rained down from the ceiling, Bono made his entrance.

He didn’t speak until ‘Vertigo’ was starting, and then only briefly - ever the diplomat showman his first words in this place so close to Mexico were in Spanish.

As they raced through the first half a dozen songs, U2 sounded as good as they have ever been – fierce, whip-crack tight and with furious intent. No grand-standing, no histrionics, just full-pelt rock and roll. Every aspect of this show was about stripping down and going back to basics. Aside from four above-stage screens filming individual band members, there was a focus on simple stark – mostly red – lighting. Whether this will be carried to Croke Park is a different matter. Making a relatively small sports arena feel intimate is a lot easier than having the same effect on a 65,000 capacity sports arena.

It wouldn't have been a U2 show without some political messages and a little sloganeering. During anti-war anthem 'Bullet The Blue Sky', Bono knelt in the middle of the stage, blindfolded, his hands held above his head in an approximation of the Abu Ghrabib prison photos.

He also used the gig to promote the One Campaign – an attempt to send one million Americans to work in Africa. As he reprised bits of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech, the singer said he too had a dream for all people of the world to be equal – drawing special attention to the great continent.

‘We have other material to get working on,’ said Bono after the show, providing an indication of what might be coming for Dublin. ‘We’ll have a few surprises to bring as the tour gets on. We tried a few things (on the first night) that didn’t always work. ‘Elevation’ went a bit south and we came off at the corners a few times with ‘The Fly’.

‘You know, I wasn’t sure what we were before, if we were still a rock band. But when I was whacking the tambourine on ‘All Because Of You’, it felt like an old song, like we were back, like we were a rock band again. At times it was a political rally, at time it was a gospel tent, at times it was a Las Vegas show.’

At this early stage, their hunger seemed unabated. They are multi-millionaires who could play by-numbers gigs, going through the motions then kicking back to watch the money roll in; the Rolling Stones have been playing such gigs for years now.

But not content with being the biggest band in the world, U2 still want to be the most vital.

Paul McNamee