Irish band U2 holds a unique place in rock history as a band that has stayed musically relevant for more than three decades.
The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Clash, Nirvana all shone brightly for less than 10 years and then fizzled out. The Rolling Stones, still a major force as a live band, have not made a decent studio album in 30 years. U2, however, has made chart topping music in the 80s, 90s and the Noughties.
It is no surprise that although their latest album, 2009's No Line On The Horizon, sold more than five million copies, the band sees it as a relative failure due to the lack of commercial radio play the singles on the album received. No other band has stayed at the top of its game for so long.
U2 is on a mission not to turn into what the Rolling Stones has become – a fantastic and innovative touring band that maintains its live reputation on the back of songs released decades ago.
On Friday night the Irish rockers played the final of their two South African shows at the Cape Town stadium in front of an appreciative 75 000 - strong crowd. This, however, was no greatest hits effort. Some of their best live songs like New Year’s Day and Bad never made it into the set.
Both the Johannesburg and Cape Town shows of the 360° tour had some customised local elements that were fairly unique in U2’s two-year world tour. There were also shout outs for Graça Machel and Zackie Achmat and numerous mentions for the band’s love for Africa.
Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr walked onto the stage to the Rainbow People Remix of "Get On Your Boots" performed by the Soweto Gospel Choir. They then went into a rousing rendition of their 2000 hit "Beautiful Day".
Although the band is touring in support of No Line On The Horizon, the centrepiece of the show is the amazing Claw stage that allows fans to sit in 360 degrees all around the stadium. The Claw has a space-like “War Of The Worlds” feel to it and is truly a sight to behold. The last time a Cape Town crowd had seen anything comparable was probably 13 years ago when U2 was last in town. Although I can’t recall a more visually audacious show, the music was never overwhelmed by the spectacle.
Bono has previously said he sees the show as having three basic "acts". In the first part he envisages himself as a young man, struggling to find his feet in life and in search of some kind of personal epiphany. The second section is more political where they wrestle with the problems of the wider world and the final few songs represent U2 at their most raw and vulnerable. None of this nuance would be obvious to the general concertgoer as the band’s charisma and pure musical skills drive the show in ebbs and flows to one climax after another.
The highlight of the first hour was a rousing rendition of "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For" with local icon Yvonne Chaka Chaka joining the band on stage. They then segued into a spine-tingling version of the classic "Stand By Me". Nelson Mandela was referenced in "Pride", although this fan favourite was one of the few older songs that sounded formulaic and a bit ponderous.
"North Star", an unreleased new song, and the majestic "Miss Sarajevo" cooled the temperature down before the cylinder screens opened up for some amazing pyrotechnics during "City Of Blinding Lights" and "Vertigo". The band teased die-hard fans with pre-recorded intros to "Fez-Being Born" and "Zooropa" but neither of these songs was played live.
No song illustrates the modern "relevance" of these veterans more than the dance remix of "I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight". The live version is a major improvement on the studio recording. The pumping beats acted as an introduction to the political section with the screen displaying images from the recent popular uprisings in North Africa.
The concert was broadcast live on Highveld FM and KFM locally and streamed online across the African continent via dstv.com. Ironically,
as the band started playing the epic "Sunday Bloody Sunday", Bono dedicated the song to "our brothers and sisters in Libya" – the same day the internet was "switched off" in that country in response to pro-democracy protests.
Cape Town resident Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the one local element that has been used in all the 360° concerts the last couple of years. Tutu spoke to the crowd via pre-recorded video drawing links between US civil right protestors, Northern Ireland peace marchers, Anti-Apartheid activists and the crowd at the concert. “We are one, we are one”, the Arch proclaimed as U2 started playing probably their most famous song, "One".
We don't want to go home
U2 might employ every bell and whistle as part of the stage show, but ultimately what unites the crowd with the band is the music. There was still time for stadium classics "Where The Streets Have No Name" and "With or Without You" before the final song "Moment Of Surrender".
Although the band played only four songs from their latest album, plus a one new song, not many people could accuse them of "pulling a Rolling Stones" and depending on their older songs.
Towards the end of the show Bono told the crowd; "We don’t want to go home". 75 000 people agreed wholeheartedly, because after two pulsating hours Cape Town's World Cup stadium had experienced something unique. Stadium shows might be a relic of years gone by, but U2 has uniquely managed to make this mass experience into an intimate night for thousands.