U2 serve up celebration and solidarity in Belfast

Ahead of four shows at Dublin’s 3Arena next week, Bono and co. serve up a night of celebration in Belfast

“Whatever happens, whether there’s a hard or soft or no border at all, more than ever, we need to trust each other on this small island in the North Atlantic Ocean. It looks like some rough weather ahead, but it’ll be a lot less rough if we navigate it together.”

It's the tail-end of an evening of solidarity and song in Belfast, at the SSE Arena and Bono is spelling it out, loud and clear: "We must be smart, strategic and work together."

There was a growing sense tonight that the 58-year-old was headed towards a big statement on the Brexit impasse. With New Year's Day two songs beforehand doubling up as an unabashed offering to the Flag of Europe ("May its yellow stars never fall upon our heads," Bono said) his focus finally falls to home. With it – and the first unmistakable chimes of One – the loudest cheer of the night rings out.

But it's just one of two stories on Saturday at the first of two shows at the SSE Arena as part of the European leg of the band's eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE tour. Having begun with archive footage of war-crippled cities across the ages, spliced alongside Charlie Chaplin's famous closing speech from The Great Dictator, the dominant thrust is, in fact, one of personal politics – of the band returning to the streets of north Dublin in the mid-1970s and tracing "the recovery of innocence at the end of experience".

Lofty words and no mistake, but tonight's performance reflects this by being fun and fist-clenched – not overbearing nor pontificating. Via The Fly and an emphatic I Will Follow early on, to Zoo Station and Even Better Than the Real Thing, U2 cast a collective eye back, while Bono, above all else, hones in on the importance of family, trust and co-operation. Even in the guise of his fiendish alter-ego, MacPhisto, he's in curiously disarming form this evening, which visibly informs the warmth among the band.

Having zig-zagged the globe with their $317 million-grossing The Joshua Tree tour last year, its famous opening triptych (Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For and With Or Without You) is notably absent. But it's a move that pays off. With turn of the millennium singles Beautiful Day, Vertigo and Elevation delighting incalculable heavyset men in bomber jackets – and the likes of Pride (In The Name of Love) continuing to pack a singular arena-worthy punch – Achtung Baby and Zooropa gems Acrobat and Stay (Faraway, So Close) make for just two unexpected highlights.

The production is another show-stopper. From several smaller stages, augmented reality transporting the band to the surface of the moon and beyond, and their 30-metre-long video screen/stage, the "barricage", it's a visual feast that makes the 11,000 capacity SSE arena seem halved. Which may explain why Bono's open letter to the past, Europe, women and Belfast town – from recent Man Booker prize winner Anna Burns to Belfast's "Godfather of Punk" Terri Hooley–- hits home twofold. "Blessed is the train from Dublin to Sandy Row, " he riffs. "From Fitzroy Avenue to Cyprus Avenue; Palestine Street to Jerusalem Street. Blessed are the peacemakers. I remember John Hume and his vision. Let's sing for him tonight."

As the lights go up, and the crowds wander onto the cusp of the Lagan, a refrain from Stay (Faraway, So Close) jigs about in the inner ear: "You can go anywhere: Miami, New Orleans, London, Belfast and Berlin. " Having played a not insignificant role in the recent past of the city, it's an idea that Bono himself underscores with surety tonight: "Belfast is still a great European city. Always and forever, whatever happens."

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