Hard News by Russell Brown



I went to U2's last Auckland show, the Zoo TV performance at Western Springs in 1993. I spent a good deal of it sitting back giggling on the hill and proposing they played one with a tune next. The big video screen created some memorable illusions, but it was, it seemed to me, a fairly solid case of nice video, shame about the song.

U2's music doesn't make me run from the room, but you couldn't call me a fan. And when I went along to see U2 play again on Friday night, I thought that would be my response: it might be fun and interesting, probably not much more.

Well, it was much more. Anyone can fly in a big screen, but I've never seen a concert production distinguished by such a degree of creative and technical evidence; nor one that complemented the music so well as Willie Williams' Vertigo extravaganza did at Mt Smart. The production was so big it made the stadium, packed with 40,000 people, seem compact and contained.

The key feature of the stage was a towering "beaded curtain" strung with spherical LEDs (MiSpheres, they're called, and they were developed specifically for this tour) which can be programmed simply as decoration, or as individual pixels in a giant low-res video display. I have never seen anything like it.

When the UN Declaration of Human Rights scrolled across the curtain, I thought of An Inconvenient Truth and its dazzling Keynote slide show, and wondered whether, with this command of new communications technology, we're seeing a new form of liberal speech. What would once have been deadly dull - a rock band reciting a manifesto, some guy giving a science speech - can now be vivid and captivating and large.

At other times, the arena had more the feel of a cathedral, with a titanic wall of stained glass at one end. Or, to put it another way, this was some of the grandeur and spirit for which people visited cathedrals before there was electricity. Either way, it seemed the kind of show only Catholics could stage.

There were startling and moving moments. As 'One Tree Hill' hit its stride, a beautiful pattern of koru motifs flowed across the curtain. The crowd went wild. Sounds cheesy? It wasn't; it was a compelling way to accompany a song for a Maori New Zealander (I knew the late Greg Carroll - he was the kind of keen, capable, full-of-life guy everyone wants to do well). The local references strewn through the show - including the threading of lines from 'Four Seasons in One Day' into 'Beautiful Day' - were clearly a work of some care. It was a bit more than Hello Auckland!.

Another you-had-to-be-there moment that probably sounds cheesy if you weren't: Bono asked people to hold up their lit mobile phones during 'Where the Streets Have No Name'. In seconds, there was a rippling sea of lights running across the crowd and washing up the stands. It made its own point about communications technology, and I actually thought it was breathtaking.

And the music? The set list is here. I think U2 have one great song ('One') and a number of good ones, but they're not performed as songs so much as anthemic themes. Related musical snippets (the Clash, the Beatles, Ann Peebles) are sprinkled through them in postmodern fashion, and with good taste. Where so many of the songs at Western Springs had seemed like fuzzy slabs of U2-ness, these were sharper and more effective performances amplified by what was going on in the rest of the production.

No, I'm not going to rush out and buy the back catalogue, but I am surprised and pleased to say that the U2 show was an extraordinary and occasionally overwhelming experience. I'm delighted to have been there.


Everyone who suggested Mt Smart for the site of a new national stadium, go and stand in the corner. Sure, we could hold big events there without bothering residents: so long as they're not on a Friday or everyone promises not to use the motorway. The jams before the show were replicated afterwards. I waited half an hour to leave and it was still a long, patient drive home; nose-to-tail all the way to Three Kings. The problem is that once people leave that stadium, they really don't have much choice but to go somewhere else, all at the same time. Departing also made me think again about the egress issue at that other stadium site, Carlaw Park: the critics have a point.

Anyway, thank to Mary for inviting me and to the Ticketmaster people, who were relaxed and personable hosts. That was a memorable Friday night out.

Danyl Mclauchlan has given us a review of The Hollow Men, so I'll refrain from comment today, except to note the devastating insight offered by one Sir Humphreys commenter: the book is the result of a conspiracy amongst left-wing MPs who secretly belong to kinky sex clubs. Why didn't I think of that?

PS: And here's one that'll warm Grant Robertson's southern heart: Tracey Nelson's game stats from the Welsh test say that Carl Hayman was in the first three All Blacks to the breakdown more than any other player - yes, even Richie. The big guy is a champ.

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