U2 at Croke Park: A nostalgic return that just made sense

The band is looking older, but the music continues to carry a political punch

It’s always the Irish gigs that gets people in a right old lather, isn’t it?

When U2 play away, we get dispatches - written by foreign correspondents in various outer reaches of the globe - that often get cynically ripped to shreds by the band’s casual critics back home.

The band will always have their critics, of course, but this time U2 really have come home, in more ways than one.

The last time the band played Dublin's Croke Park plugging The Joshua Tree was in late June 1987; 30 years have passed, and even Larry Mullen jnr is looking like his supplies of Peter Pan pills are drying up.

We're all older, of course, so what really matters about the Joshua Tree Tour 2017 is whether the decades' gap can be filled - or, God forbid, even explained - by the update.

This time around, as outlined by the band's creative director, Willie Williams, in a recent interview with this paper, the original show's basic template has been enhanced. Looking at the stage from row W, seat 26, this is true by some measure.

The previous stage productions for U2’s Innocence + Experience and 360° Tours may now seem preposterous and ostentatious by comparison; there’s something deeply immersive about Joshua Tree 2017.

Since 1989's Love Town tour, U2 shows have been dwarfed by all manner of retina-striking special effects. Here, the sight lines are clean, the backdrop not an array of visual sparkles but unblemished ultra widescreen and definition cinema as shot by the band's longtime collaborator, Anton Corbijn.

The effect of such a backdrop - adorned by works of poetry before the show even starts - is akin to being in the biggest, artiest open-air cinema in the world.

Frankly, the capacity crowd go nuts for it.

Initially, the band plays it straight. Out on a B-stage, with no spectacular visuals to take away from the fact that a young band by the name of U2 appears to be the support act for a much older music act, Bono, Larry, Edge and Adam open with a batch of songs that act as a lead-in to the second part of the show.

Played with taut efficiency, with Bono’s voice rougher than usual, these songs include Sunday Bloody Sunday, New Year’s Day, Bad, Pride (In the Name of Love).

Setting the scene perfectly, it is when the second act begins - The Joshua Tree album in its entirety - that, amidst the dropping of jaws, it all starts to make sense.

Inarguably the band’s most cohesive work, and one mired in political and personal upheaval, the album is played sequentially.

Opening song Where the Streets Have No Name arrives complete with tricolor fly past and a forceful surge. Calmer, more delicate songs such as One Tree Hill, Running to Stand Still, With or Without You, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Trip Through Your Wires, and In God’s Country benefit from slightly different arrangements.

Curiously, the album’s original political context remains intact. By the second act’s final song - Mothers of the Disappeared - it’s a timely reminder that, although U2 has consciously decided to look back to 1987, the mindset is very much rooted in the here and now.

This is further evidenced at the start of the third section’s mini ‘Best Of’ encore, with sobering footage of Syrian refugee camps as they perform Miss Sarajevo.

A transparent, direct shout out to the power of the feminine is underscored with Ultraviolet (Light my Way). One causes collective weeping, while Beautiful Day, Elevation and Vertigo rock the joint’s foundations.

The show began with a precursor to U2’s gradual status as one of the world’s best rock bands. It ended with a pointer to their future via a new song, The Little Things Give You Away.

There’s some distance from then to now, but between poetry, pop music, politics and performance art, U2 at Croke Park was a game/set/match triumph.