I once read in a physics textbook that if an atom were to be magnified to the size of London’s Wembley Stadium, the nucleus at the centre would be about as big as a hazelnut.
Well screw that, because I can think of much better uses for Wembley Stadium. Besides the obvious — football — it is of course an ideal venue for rock concerts and last Friday night U2 showed exactly how it should be done. From my high and distant vantage point they stood like stick-men on the stage, but still managed to amplify themselves to fill the stadium. And I’m not just talking about the sound level.
It’s over 20 years since I last saw the band but, spurred by the blog post I wrote when their new album came out in March, I bought tickets for last Friday’s concert. Recklessly, I got tickets for myself and my children, whom I’d exposed — not altogether unwillingly — to some of U2’s back catalogue. I’d not been to a rock concert of any kind since the children came along, so I knew this was going to be different.
But I needn’t have worried. For us the show kicked off with the support act, Elbow, whose enchanting, pained melodies from ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ I admire very much. They put in a great performance, all the more impressive since it was to a half-filled stadium on a light summer evening. Suddenly I remembered: there is something different about having the music pounding through your whole body.
And then, with the light dimming and smoke starting to emanate from the gigantic spiderous stage in the middle of the stadium, a thunderous roar greeted U2 who launched straight into the pulsating, clanging ‘Breathe’ from the new album.
The years fell away – at least episodically. I was repeatedly reminded of my parental status as my youngest, who’s not so familiar with the band (and initially confused them with Elbow), kept asking — by bellowing in my ear at the top of her voice — “What’s this song called?”
In front of us was another father with his two children. He was clearly much more ‘into it’ than me because he kept jumping to his feet and punching the air. Then he would try to get his kids to do the same. Part of me was thinking ‘Good on you, mate’, but I could also hear a voice in my head congratulating me on not being such a dreadful embarrassment.
But there were moments. Bono has more or less given up his sermonizing so there were almost no gaps between tracks. The show was incredibly slick and technically stunning. U2 turned the stadium into a dazzling cauldron of sound that thrummed in your rib-cage and swept you away.
I’ve said it before — I love the music — but I’d forgotten how special it was to hear it live.
At times, the show was moving in other ways. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, written for the Troubles in Northern Ireland was given new meaning as the stage was flooded with green and the video screen filled with images from the recent demonstrations in Iran. The band then dedicated ‘Walk on’ to Aung San Suu Kyi, sentenced to a further 18 months house arrest in Burma only this week.
And at the end, just before the first encore, there was the face of Desmond Tutu talking from the giant video screen, reminding us of the lives that had been saved by the nurses, doctors and scientists who had worked so hard to relieve the misery of AIDS and malaria in Africa.
Science and music – it doesn’t get much better than that. Even for an aged has-been like myself.
Postscript: It has emerged from subsequent discussions that my kids were, shall we say, somewhat amused by my asynchronous clapping along. Fortunately, they couldn’t hear my singing.
Postscript 2: I haven’t forgotten my review of Huxley – it’s still gestating!