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Review of Auckland, 24/11

On 4 December 1993, U2 performed the second of two Zoo TV concerts in New Zealand. Almost thirteen years later to the day, the band finally returned to the "land of the long white cloud" (the English translation of Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand) for two concerts at Auckland's Mount Smart Stadium. As a New Zealander, U2's visit to my homeland meant a great deal. I had not had the pleasure of seeing the band in the country on earlier tours, and I had all but written off even the possibility of the band ever returning. Accordingly, the band's two concerts had a lot of significance for me, and today's review shall focus on the first gig.

I arrived at Mt Smart Stadium not long after 9am and met up with some friends from overseas. The gates had not yet opened; apparently there were some organisational issues still being resolved. It was not a long wait until the gates were opened, and soon I discovered that we were being queued inside the Supertop, which is essentially a big tent beside the stadium that is used for concerts and other events. We could've used this sort of shelter at the Brisbane concert! As someone particularly sensitive to the sun, I found queuing inside the Supertop to be bordering on a stroke of genius, and I feel it was the best organised queue on the tour.

We were let into the stadium before 5pm and I staked out a position in the second row directly in front of Adam's spot. However, over the next hour, the weather took a turn for the worst, and by 6pm, it began to rain - not all too heavily, but steadily nonetheless. As Kanye West's set approached, the rain continued but began to ease by the time he came on, twenty minutes late. Placing a temporary shelter above Kanye's DJ was apparently not enough, as a tarpaulin had to be dragged around it to create a sort of "wall", presumably to avoid any water landing upon his turntable and destroying the set. A few songs into Kanye's set, he observed that the crowd was giving him the best response he'd received thus far, and he wasn't lying: I looked around at the crowd, stunned at how enthusiastic large sections were for his music after the apathy I observed in Australia. Luckily, by the end of his set, the rain had stopped entirely.

Before U2 took the stage, I looked around the stadium in disbelief: this band whose music has enriched my life and who I never thought would again visit my homeland were actually here. The Vertigo stage was right here in Mt Smart Stadium with One Tree Hill itself behind (though only visible to some in high seats). It was a very powerful experience for me; it's one thing to see U2 in their home away from home in Boston, as I did last year, or to see them in my adopted country of Australia, but to see them on New Zealand soil was very special it didn't seem real until Wake Up blasted through the PA and U2 took the stage with a soaring rendition of City Of Blinding Lights. Bono, who had draped himself in the Australian flag on the other side of the Tasman, came out without a flag this time; instead, the Maori motif that is the logo of Mt Smart Stadium's home rugby league team, the Auckland Warriors, appeared on the back of his jacket.

The anticipation and enthusiasm of the New Zealand audience burst forth in a surge of excitement, cheers, and applause, and this only heightened with Vertigo. At the end of Vertigo, Bono threw in a seemingly off-tune snippet of Queen's We Will Rock You; exactly fifteen years ago to the day, Freddie Mercury had passed away. As a Queen fan, I appreciated the gesture. I'm an even bigger fan of possibly New Zealand's greatest vocalist and musical export, Neil Finn, and the two famous bands he fronted, Split Enz (indisputably Kiwi) and Crowded House (claimed by New Zealanders and Australians alike), and in Elevation, Bono made nods to both of Finn's bands. The song was opened with a snippet related not to Neil Finn but to the earlier rain, Can't Stand The Rain, and at the song's breakdown, Bono gave further reference to the rain by snippeting a few lines from Crowded House's classic Four Seasons In One Day. This snippet met with many cheers from the Kiwi audience. The song concluded with a rather inaudible snippet of the famous "I don't know why sometimes I get frightened" line from Split Enz's I Got You.

During the next song, I Will Follow, Bono did one of the things he does best: making inaccurate statements about U2's history! Bono praised New Zealand as being the first country to make I Will Follow a hit and referred to it as U2's first single; it was actually fifth after, in order, Out Of Control/U2:3, Another Day, 11 O'clock Tick Tock, and Boy's lead single, A Day Without Me. Of course, only trivia buffs would have even noticed this mistake and the performance itself was electrifying. New Year's Day and Beautiful Day were played to the same high standard, and like in Australia, Bono modified the "see the world in green and blue" verse of Beautiful Day to reference the local area, speaking of Cape Reinga (not New Zealand's most northerly point despite popular belief), the scenic fjords of the southwestern South Island, and the "city of sails" itself, Auckland.

The next song was a thing of true beauty. The entire stadium erupted as U2 launched into "our" song, One Tree Hill. They weren't just snippeting it and they weren't just playing a stripped down acoustic version - they were actually playing the song in its full electric form, the way it's meant to be played! It was the song's first performance since 9 January 1990, almost seventeen years ago, but you would have been hard-pressed to tell. The band performed it flawlessly, complete with Edge's extended guitar ending. Tears were in my eyes as I and those around me sung along, word for word, with one of the most poetic, beautiful, and emotional songs in U2's entire catalogue. The song was written after the death of Bono's personal assistant, a Maori named Greg Carroll, died twenty years ago in a motorcycle accident in Dublin, and after the song's conclusion, Bono spoke of attending Carroll's tangi, a traditional Maori funeral. He used this speech to segue into an emotional performance of Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own, which concluded with a snippet of One Tree Hill's outro, the "oh great ocean" lyrics that are mistakenly at the start of Exit on many pressings of The Joshua Tree.

Like usual, next was the politically charged second half of the main set. At the time of writing, this is currently the last performance of Love And Peace Or Else as it has failed to appear at the last three concerts, and I find its absence hard to comprehend - at the first Auckland show, just like at the eight Vertigo shows I'd seen previously, it was one of the concert's highlights. Bono's drumming certainly has drawn a response from the crowd! Sunday Bloody Sunday showed that Bono needs to work on not just his drumming skills, but also on his memory of other people's songs! I had not noticed previously, though perhaps I should have: when Bono snippets The Clash's Rock The Casbah, he sings "she really don't like it" instead of "the shareef don't like it", and Auckland's extended snippet of the song made this mistake very clear to me. Not that it matters; whether it's the shareef or an unidentified female, the snippet is fantastic.

There is little I can say about the rest of the main set that I haven't said before about these songs. U2 perform them to a high standard, and at the end of Where The Streets Have No Name, the screen went blue with four red stars, just like the New Zealand flag. At the start of Miss Sarajevo, Bono made a curious statement about it being "Thanksgiving in America and Australia", but I suspect that rather than seeking to imply that Australia celebrates Thanksgiving, he simply had not thought about his phrasing ahead of time and the words just came out that way. All in all, the political segment was performed with its usual passion, and from my perspective, it went down well with the crowd. New Zealand, after all, is notably pacific and opposed the Iraq war vigorously.

It was not long after the main sets that the Zoo slots appeared on the screen, signifying the impending encore. On the first set of slots, three famous New Zealanders appeared: legendary recently retired All Black captain Tana Umaga, actor Russell Crowe, and a third figure who I could not see well enough to identify. The second political set contained current Prime Minister Helen Clark and the Queen of New Zealand, better known to most of the world as the Queen of England, Elizabeth II. The first encore was the same as in Melbourne, and as with those gigs, I feel The Fly is easily the best of all the songs. It is absolutely electric, full of rocking energy, and no matter how many times I hear it live, I always find it to be one of the best songs of the night. It never seems to get old. With Or Without You, on the other hand, seems tired - without the "shine like stars" verse or Love Will Tear Us Apart snippet, it comes off as an incomplete song begging to be adequately concluded.

The second encore was the usual "first night" trio. The Saints Are Coming got the crowd going, Angel Of Harlem was one of the night's biggest sing-alongs, and Kite was gorgeous. However, without Tim Moriarty on didgeridoo, Kite somehow seemed a little lacking, and I am unsurprised that it has not been performed at the following three concerts. Also, at the previous Australian shows, despite some close calls, the kite had not quite come to grief, but it was only a matter of time. Bono tried and then tried some more, but the kite he was trying to fly simply did not want to take flight in the manner he desired and instead slumped unspectacularly into the giant Vertigo screen for a roadie to remove. Despite this unfortunate end, Kite's performance was still exceptional and ended the concert on a beautiful, moving note. Even though this show consisted of only 21 songs, the lowest amount of any concert on the fifth leg, One Tree Hill was so good that it counted for two (if not five or ten!) songs and the rest of the show was played very well. Welcome back to the land of rugby, sheep, and town names that sound derogatory to foreigners, U2! It was worth the wait.

Posted on by Axver

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