U2. Full of Grace – The View From One Tree Hill

When U2 left the stage at the end of their Auckland concert Friday night Bono thanked the forty thousand strong stadium audience. “Thanks for allowing us to live life large. And we promise we will live it as large as we possibly can”.

U2 is a not just a big machine. In the music world it is a technological and economic colossus. Walking into the stadium through armies of security and helicopters hovering overhead there was a sense of the apocalyptic. The impact of seeing the ten storey metallic plasma screen – a cosmic backdrop for the band, glinting in the evening light – was awe inspiring. The concert had not begun yet but the vibe was up. A spontaneous Mexican wave swept the stadium audience as a rained-out Kanye West and his string section withdrew and the system was prepared for U2. The rain lifted before U2 hit the stage.

Right from the start of their international touring U2 have had a reputation for using cutting edge technology in their concerts. For the Vertigo concert the two technology stars were the plasma screen and the cell phone. The screen was a panoramic virtual canvas displaying images ranging from bisons to B52s. At one stage the screen just displayed the word COEXIST. The “c” was the Islamic crescent, the “x” was a Judaic Star of David and the “t” was the Christian cross.

At another point in the concert the audience were invited to text their names to support the ending of world poverty to a number displayed on the screen. Minutes later the names of members of the audience were scrolling behind the band as they launched into another song.

Some of us got into the music business to change the world. Most of us have settled for changing ourselves. But Bono thinks large. He’s been on the cover of Time magazine. Like any successful politician he knows his people; he does his home work. Born in the twilight of ‘the troubles’ U2 have stuck to their political guns. Over twenty years the U2 agenda has been kept intact – they are still relevant, still rock out and still have the power to touch and teach an audience.

After the show, through no fault of my own and a fortuitous chapter of hook-ups, I ended up at the U2 after-party in a swank Auckland hotel conference room. After accidentally elbowing Kanye West as I reached for an asparagus roll from the generous buffet, I ended up in a conversation circle with U2. Bono spoke about how the recent collaboration with Green Day on The Saints Are Coming was a chance “to work with a real fuckin’ band; they’re just like us – a garage band who all live just around the corner from each other like we do in Dublin.” The point of the collaboration was more than commercial. The song (beginning with the opening strains of The House of the Rising Sun) highlights the irresponsibility of the American administration’s slow response to the New Orleans hurricane Katrina tragedy as they simultaneously poured military resources into Iraq.

Bono also talked about singing One Tree Hill in Auckland where “the tree” has now been chain sawed into history. I mentioned that I had known Greg Carroll for whom the song was written (he was a roadie for the Narcs before going on to work with U2). When Greg was tragically killed in a car crash in Dublin U2 brought him home to New Zealand. Bono spoke about how the experience gave him a glimpse into the Maori world. “There’s a strong connection there between the Irish and Maori; something ancient.”

He is philosophical when he talks about the rain that had threatened the start of the concert. “It didn’t worry us” he said. “Rain is God’s glue – it’s democratising; it draws the band and the audience closer together”. Pure Irish ironic.

Sometimes it takes others to reflect back to us who and how we are. The U2 performance was peppered with references to New Zealand: “the long white cloud”, Cape Reinga and a quick plundering of Four Seasons in One Day. But the big moment was when (for the first time in eight years) the band played One Tree Hill.

Huge animated red, white and black kowhaiwhai patterns played on the plasma screen and showered the audience with light. Kowhaiwhai ten storeys high accompanied by Edge’s Celtic inspired, soaring, supersonic guitar. It was a moment full of grace.

Written by Liam Ryan Thursday, 30 November 2006

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