U2 (Ireland) – Popmart Sydney

As any Sydney-sider will tell you, Sydney’s weather shits on Melbourne’s. Which is why after the blue skied sunshine of Melbourne, the grim rainy skies of Sydney that greeted this Melburnian raised a wry smile.

The Sydney Football Stadium in Moore Park was the scene for tonight’s instalment of U2’s Popmart juggernaut. Ponchos were selling better than U2 shirts and inflatable lemons, but already soaked after the trip down from the city it was $5 that didn’t need to be spent. Upon entering the venue, the immediate thought was what a far superior venue this was to Melbourne’s Waverley Park – the rectangular rugby pitch dimensions providing a far closer proximity to the stage than the vast expanses seen a week prior.

Nevertheless, the tickets held by our group were average at best, so armed with the news that anyone with a WIRE tag could find their way into more favourable positions after locating some elusive security folk, it was time to set about finding them. After an elaborate scheme involving passing back one tag between 6 people, the red-ink ‘U2’ scrawl on the back of our tickets opened doors, and our group found themselves hard up against the rail at the end of the B-stage. And there we would stay until an overzealous American with seemingly more rights to the area than others (OK, she may have had a ticket), alerted local security and a bunch of us were sent out. Luckily, when one door shuts, another opens (or more accurately, what goes out one aisle comes in another) and after support act Sidewinder wound up another underwhelming set, there would be no more movements required.

Helena Christensen, one of Michael Hutchence’s many ex’s walked, camera in hand, around the inner  barrier flanked by security guards. As the rain once again set in, the lights dimmed and the now familiar strains of Pop Muzik heralded the entrance through the crowd of the 4 lads from Dublin. Suddenly, the crowd of collective drowned rats forgot about the rain and watched in awe as Mofo again bled into I Will Follow. With 17 years between each song’s release, U2 seem determined this tour to show how the ‘garage band from garage land’ has evolved.

Gone is raw tonight. Calling out to Michael Hutchence, there’s a heavier feel to this excellent tune than there was in Melbourne and the audience respond in kind. Whether that’s due to being in Hutchence’s home city, the pouring rain or a closer crowd is hard to say… most likely it’s a combination. As a small ramp is placed at the end of the B stage during Last Night on Earth, those who’d seen the show before know that Bono will be climbing into the crowd at this very spot. Climb in he does, and the reception is immense.

With the set following a familiar path to Melbourne in terms of song choices, Pride is a huge improvement tonight on what sounded laboured last week. With the crowd in full voice, the anthemic refrain is carried all the way through to the lengthy introduction of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.  Edge and Bono’s acoustic rendition of Desire out on the B stage then gives the crowd something not heard in Melbourne. Edge takes over vocal duties for the beautiful new take on Sunday Bloody Sunday, and if Bullet the Blue Sky didn’t top what had been dished up in Melbourne, it went damn close. The dream pairing of Please flowing into Where The Streets Have No Name sees the rain hit again, and at the crescendo of the latter, eyes are drawn to a guy climbing up the 40m high repeater stack scaffolding, trailed by two security guards (which begs the question, what were they actually going to do if they got to him?). In pouring rain, our hero reaches the top, shirt off and swings it around his head. It’s noticed by Bono who offers up applause, and the crowd, in full voice for one of U2’s live highlight tunes, cheer his trip down.

With the stage by now resembling an ice rink with the amount of rain covering it, the mirrorball lemon’s journey down the runway is aborted, and rather than emerge slowly from the giant citrus fruit, Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry appear through the smoke at the end of the B-stage and launch straight into Discotheque. With every hit of Larry’s drums splashing up water, and Edge’s guitar dripping by the end of the introduction, this is a moment that none will forget. Making his way from the stage, Bono sits with a young teenage girl at the end of the stage, singing With or Without You to her as much as the 40,000 present throughout the stadium.

Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me kicks off the closing part of the set, followed by Mysterious Ways complete with Edge’s feet gliding him across the wet stage during the guitar solo. One of the most eerie and mindblowing moments of U2’s live catalogue follows during One. With torrential rain now falling, and Bono’s dedication to Michael Hutchence barely out of his mouth, the lights are dimmed. Lightning flashes across the eastern sky behind the trademark yellow arch and there’s a collective gasp throughout the stadium. You can’t write that stuff.

As four coloured pictures of the former INXS frontman are shown on the 50m screen behind him, Bono delivers a quiet, reflective version of MLK. The band say their goodnights, and appropriately leave the stage as INXS’ Never Tear Us Apart fills the stadium.

Tonight’s Sydney stop on the Popmart tour would surely not be topped by any show to follow it. A selection of songs that had something for everyone, the camaraderie in the crowd caused an attitude of ‘well, we’re all soaked anyway, let’s just enjoy it’ amongst punters, and the never to be repeated electrical activity in the night sky make this a gig for the ages. Popmart may not have received the same critical acclaim as Zoo TV, or the album it supported been as well received as Achtung Baby or Zooropa, but U2 have shown why they remain the masters of shrinking a stadium down to a size where everyone present is part of the show.

(edit: 2014. It’s been 16 years since I first scrawled this in a notebook. In that time, I’ve seen U2 live a further 16 times. Whilst both the Vertigo and 360 tours were amazing shows in their own right, this 1998 Popmart show in Sydney remains the greatest U2 show I’m likely to ever witness. When concert time machines are built, I’m going straight back to 8pm on Friday 27th February, 1998 at Moore Park. And I’m not packing a spray jacket.)

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