U2 (Ireland) – Popmart Melbourne

Those arriving early for U2’s first show in Melbourne since 1993’s epic Zoo TV outing were treated to sunny skies and a Waverley Park car park experience that would be in complete contrast to that which they’d face after the show. Towering over the south-eastern suburban football stadium was Popmart’s giant yellow arch, one half of McDonald’s trademark golden arches in an ironic nod to consumer culture. Shortly before 6pm, a chain of police motorcycles entered, surrounding white BMW’s with blacked out windows rolled in. For the handful who were either in the right place at the right time, or who knew something was imminent, they’d get the ultimate pre-show buzz as frontman Bono emerged and spent time signing autographs and taking photos with the growing crowd.

U2 online community WIRE (update: 2013 20 Years of Wire) had set themselves up on the northern lawn with the well-travelled WIRE banner. The large black banner, with ‘Not Coming Down’ scrawled across it had visited every show worldwide since it’s older brother (a similar banner, stolen somewhere in 1997) disappeared. Fans signed it, met other fans – some dressed in MacPhisto-esque gold lamé or Popmart-era muscle shirts – and traced their way through the first 3 legs of the Popmart tour.

Heading inside, the vast surface of Waverley Park was covered in organised rows of white plastic seats, but with a huge empty space between the front rows of the stands and the back row said seats. The towering concrete Sir Kenneth Luke stand played host to the Wire banner and those who’d not bought their tickets early enough. As inviting stadia go though, Waverley Park is a long way down the list.

Australian support act Sidewinder play a low key and innocuous set that – simply put – no one listened to. For a $100 ticket price, U2 fans are entitled to expect better in terms of support acts and although their album Tangerine was getting some solid airplay on triple J, this was an underwhelming choice for such a big tour.

As 8:30pm passed and the sun slowly slipped lower, the disco beats of M’s Pop Muzik got thumping and the 50m wide screen at the rear of the stage burst into action, with the neon lettering of ‘POP’ giving us our backdrop for the evening. The crowd on the floor were parted down the middle and in an entrance reminiscent of a title fight, Larry Mullen Jr, Adam Clayton, The Edge and Bono took to the stage after walking through the crowd and onto the 40 metre catwalk. Shadowboxing and donning a blue hooded robe, Bono bounces his way to the mic and rips straight into Mofo. Wearing a black cowboy hat, Edge’s screeching guitar is a world away from his trademark Joshua Tree era sound. As if to show us how far they’ve come, Mofo is followed by I Will Follow. 1980’s opening track from the Boy album sits brilliantly alongside the opener and has even the ‘I’m not sure about Pop’ headscratchers on their feet. Gone was dedicated to the recently departed Michael Hutchence.

“Republic of Australia!” screams Bono, introducing Even Better Than The Real Thing. “Republic of Australia! Are you up to it?” he asks. Whilst that remains to be seen politically, the crowd tonight most certainly are up for it as Larry’s thundering drums and Edge’s trademark guitar riff kick off tonight’s first tune from Achtung Baby.

The 3 songs that follow take tonight into lift off territory. Armed with a red guitar (on fire?) Bono namechecks Melbourne’s famed upside down river – The Yarra – before climbing into the crowd at the conclusion of Last Night On Earth breaks down the audience/performer barrier. None do this better than the U2 front man, able to tame the austere concrete venues in which they play and reach the crowd through their songs. Dropping his guitar into a roadie’s waiting arms, Bono is handed a mic and as Edge kicks off the thundering opening bars of Until The End of the World there’s little time for a breather. Old and new move seamlessly into one another in this set, with Adam Clayton driving New Year’s Day’s familiar bassline. Pride (In the Name of Love) follows, which is the first of the older songs that sounds like it could do with a rest from the set after playing it constantly for the last 14 years of shows.

“All the best rock stars come from the suburbs anyway” Bono says over the chiming introduction to I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, clearly in reference to being some 25km south east of the city. He thanks those who’s made the long trek out to somewhere not served by any public transport, and thanks us collectively for ‘giving us 4 a great life’. Bad makes a welcome return to the setlist, with segues to Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side and All I Want is You. This is an epic tune that despite not being a single never ceases to deliver live. Making their way to the end of the catwalk, Bono and The Edge team up on acoustic guitars for Staring at the Sun, before Edge is handed the spotlight (which reflects of his rhinestone covered cowboy getup) for his own stripped back version of Sunday Bloody Sunday. It’s a different take on the classic and it’s give a more poignant feel than the storming anger and military drumming of the original .

The night’s incredible high point follows: the triumvirate of Bullet The Blue Sky, Please and Where The Streets Have No Name. Bullet kicks things off with a new-for-98 funked up guitar part, Bono switching up his mid song spoken section to include references to Iraq and Bill Clinton breathing in to a saxophone, and a guitar solo from The Edge that might just be better than its Zoo TV incarnation. Please might be in the top handful of songs U2 have ever written. Billed as an ‘Irish Prayer’ this is Pop’s masterpiece, even those that haven’t got on board with the Pop album seem in awe and the segue into U2’s live staple Where the Streets Have No Name is seamless.

A brief break sees the giant video screen give us 5 minutes of a transvestite dancing to the Lemon Perfecto Mix. Interesting. Tonight though is about to go all Spinal Tap in the best possible way – the band’s giant discoball lemon makes its way to the end of the catwalk and in its own spaceship like way opens to reveal the 4 band members inside who make their way down its steps to rip into Discotheque. Larry looks unimpressed but that’s not unusual. For all its Village People-esque video charm, this is one song that really takes off live. If You Wear That Velvet Dress softens the mood, and With Or Without You sees Bono pluck Melbourne girl Nicky Wallis from the crowd to dance with him.

A brief break and the obligatory encore is kicked off by the coughing and spluttering Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me from the Batman soundtrack, before the night draws to a close with Mysterious Ways and One. Keith Haring images of hearts and humans adorn the screen, and as the band leave the stage, Nick Cave’s Into My Arms drifts across the stadium.

Popmart is a very different show to ZooTV – for all its gimmickry and kitsch (discoball lemons, giant olives, arches and video screens), Popmart puts the focus squarely back on the songs. Audio-visually, there’s less going on than the madness of the Zoo, and it delivers the perfect mix of old and new, all packaged into a product that any self-respecting supermarket would sell.

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