By Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
We weren't allowed to bring cameras or recording equipment to the first London date of U2's Vertigo tour, and should have been asked to leave cynicism and scepticism at the gates too.
This was a night of high ideals and heart-on-sleeve anthems, which on closer inspection were full of feel-good liberal pieties and vague spiritual flannel but played live in front of tens of thousands on a warm summer's night had their own undeniable logic.
Is there another band today that can work a stadium with such skill? Having been together almost 30 years, since the moment when Larry Mullen, the drummer, put a notice up at their Dublin school looking for classmates interested in forming a rock band, U2 are currently at their peak. The 1980s will surely be judged their best decade in terms of music, but as fortysomethings they're performing with rare confidence and warmth.
They opened with "Vertigo" from their most recent album How to Dismantle an Atom Bomb whose chorus of "hello, hello" is tailor-made for rousing a huge audience to its feet. The stage set was less flashy than on previous U2 outings: the quartet were backed by huge screens but otherwise there wasn't much gimmickry.
Musically, they didn't put a foot wrong. Mullen and Adam Clayton, the bassist, were the band's unassuming engine room. The Edge was superb on guitar, whether playing the shivery melodies of old songs such as "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" or the choppier, more inventive texture of tracks such as "Elevation".
But the main focus, inevitably, was Bono, looking the quintessential rock star with his slicked back hair, black clothes and trademark sunglasses and singing with impressive force. His was a highwire act in which he hung suspended between the preposterous and the utterly compelling, at times grandstanding like a born show-off, at others electrifying us.
Preposterous moments included hammy lines such as when he described himself as "a married man flirting with the entire city of London" or his saccharine lyrics to "Miracle Drug", when he sang that "Freedom has a scent like the top of a new born baby's head" (presumably tyranny is like an elderly person with dandruff). And he seemed oblivious to the irony of dedicating a track to British servicemen and women in a setlist that also featured "Sunday Bloody Sunday", a song inveighing against the British army's most inglorious moment in Northern Ireland. Yet then he would redeem himself with a single action. As "City of Blinding Lights" built to its conclusion, he grabbed an inflatable heart-shaped balloon from the audience and let it float gently away over our heads towards the sky, thousands of heads swivelling around to watch it go.
Before beginning "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own", a touching ode to his dead father, he carefully removed his sunglasses, as if to turn his true face to us.
Warming up for London's Live 8 concert next month, he dedicated a trio of U2's most powerful songs to the subject of African poverty: "Pride", "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "One". Whirled up in the great surging choruses and the Edge's fluid guitar-playing, any doubts about their stadium activism melted away into the night. What effect it has when the music stops remains to be seen, however.