From innocence to experience - looking back on 37 years of U2 performances

Over many years, U2 fan Tony Clayton-Lea has watched the band transform from woeful support act to nervous headliners to rock giants. Here's his blow-by-blow account

Elevated: Bono and the Edge on stage during the U2 August 2001 concert in Slane, Co Meath. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Elevated: Bono and the Edge on stage during the U2 August 2001 concert in Slane, Co Meath. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

1978, September 9th: Top Hat Ballroom, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin
U2 support The Stranglers, and receive cold comfort (and quite a few gobs of spit) from a partisan punk rock audience. What I hear from the band doesn’t impact at all, but you can clearly see that Bono has little fear of confrontation.

1978, December 20th: Stardust Ballroom, Artane, Dublin
U2 support The Greedy Bastards, a Thin Lizzy/Sex Pistols "supergroup". I recall this gig as being the first ever uber-hip one I had been to – it was (although I was then unfamiliar with the phrase) a "hot ticket" show. U2 are abysmal, but the Greedy Bastards’ version of Pretty Vacant is the Best. Xmas. Present. Ever.

1980, July 27th: Leixlip Castle, Co Kildare
The first time I see U2 at an open-air event they perform halfway up (or down) a bill that includes headliners The Police, Moondogs, John Otway, Q-Tips (with a very young Paul Young) and Squeeze. From this point onwards, U2 start to make sense – songs such as 11 O’Clock Tick Tock and their new single, A Day Without Me (which is played twice), are terrific. Bono climbs the speaker stacks. And so it begins.
 
1980, December 22nd: The TV Club, Harcourt Street, Dublin
U2 return home from the relative success of their debut US shows, and the critical acclaim bestowed on their debut album, Boy, which was released in October. Another hottest-ticket-in-town gig, the band is exceptional, and a stuffed venue goes bananas. There’s more grandstanding from Bono, but as celebratory homecoming gigs go, his antics seem perfectly reasonable. Adam Clayton’s bass playing is improving.
 
1981, August 16th: Slane Castle, Co Meath
Thin Lizzy headline Slane Castle’s inaugural open-air concert, and U2 are second on the bill. They preview some tracks from forthcoming second album, October (including Gloria, Fire, and the title track) but it’s the likes of I Will Follow and Out of Control that make more of an impression. The size of the venue highlights certain shortcomings, notably a presumptuous sense of their worth. Bono’s speechifying doesn’t help.
 
1982, July 18th: Punchestown Racecourse, Co Kildare
A fundraising gig for Hot Press. The headliner is Rory Gallagher (the bill also features Paul Brady, Simple Minds, De Dannan and Big Self). U2 are steadily making their way in a live context; Bono is becoming more and more assured, tempering his zealousness with hints of crowd-pleasing (if repetitive) stagecraft. The songs, meanwhile, are really growing into their skin: already, the likes of Gloria, A Day Without Me, I Will Follow, Out of Control, 11 O’Clock Tick Tock sound like classics.
 
1985, June 29th: Croke Park, Dublin
In the space of two years, the War and Unforgettable Fire albums have been released. Singles such as New Year’s Day, Two Hearts Beat as One, and Pride (in the Name of Love) are chart hits in many territories, and even album tracks (40, Bad) are well known. “The Jacks are back,” says Bono. U2 headline in front of 57,000 people. 57,000 people go bonkers. The band encore with Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown, and dammit but there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
 
1987, June 27th/28th: Croke Park, Dublin
Several months after The Joshua Tree album is released, rock music’s hottest ticket comes to town. And they’re Irish. Bono is, of course, a bollocks by this stage, Larry hasn’t aged a day, Edge is going bald, and Adam is seriously the luckiest bass player in the world. But still – The Streets Have No Name? Running to Stand Still? With or Without You? Lumps. In. Throat.
 
1989, December 30th: The Point, Dublin
Bowing out of the decade with the largely disappointing Rattle and Hum album, and with Bono vowing that U2 “have to go away and just dream it all up again”, these are the band’s first indoor Dublin shows since 1982. It is, by any stretch of the imagination, an outstanding performance that ticks many boxes. What on earth would U2 do next? Who knew?
 
1993, August 14th: Roundhay Park, Leeds, UK; August 27th: RDS, Dublin
Just when you thought that U2 couldn’t (or wouldn’t) surprise you any more, along come two of their best albums in the company of a gob-smacking and game-changing display of stadium rock visuals. What we get is part retina blitzkrieg, part satire, part sloganeering bombast, and Bono’s Macphisto character influenced by – although not many fair weather fans will be aware of it – U2’s old muckers, The Virgin Prunes. An amazing, intelligent spectacle with good songs to back it up.
 
1997, August 30th/31th: Lansdowne Road, Dublin
Plugging their Pop album, this is the only time where I think U2 are going through motions they’d rather avoid. Not even another elaborate (and excessive) stage show could hide the weakness of the album and the perfunctory performance. Very ho hum.
 
2001, August 25th and September 1st: Slane Castle, Co Meath
Back to basics? More or less. Extravagance is replaced by (relative) simplicity. Satin is replaced by leather. “We’re back, reapplying for the job of best band in the world,” says Bono (still bullish after all these years). This said, the band’s two shows here (never before or after repeated) prove them to be up to the task. Exciting, emotive, and quite exceptional.
 
2005, June 24th: Croke Park, Dublin
The Vertigo tour show is similarly stripped down and, comparatively, intimate. Crucially (and now tellingly) the band revisit their past as songs from debut album, Boy, receive more of an airing than tracks from later albums. A subtly designed stadium show, with some cracking new songs (Vertigo, City of Blinding Lights) add texture to a clearly reinvigorated musical unit.
 
2009, July 24th: Croke Park, Dublin
Supporting the weakest album of their career (No Line on the Horizon), the groundbreaking stage configuration for this 360-degree tour accommodates a huge four-legged structure nicknamed the Claw. For reasons I can’t fully explain, the show I experience has a weirdly profound effect on me. Frankly, by the end of it, I’m in tears. Most peculiar, but astounding nonetheless.
 
2015, November 23rd/24th/27th/28th: 3Arena, Dublin
Here we go again. U2 plug another album (Songs of Innocence) that has a few fine songs and too many weak ones. U2 surround themselves with a much-trumpeted rock-theatre show and visuals. What will it be like? Good? Poor? Intense? Ho hum? Amazing? To be continued.

 

- "Pomp and bombast from the word go": Read our review of U2's Belfast show of Wednesday, Nov 18th

- "Bono: the voice of innocence and experience": the U2 singer offers Brian Boyd a lift from Turin to Milan

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