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REVIEW: Haters gonna hate, U2’s gonna U2

MANILA, Philippines — I don’t know what U2 was thinking, literally, I don’t. I wasn’t in the room when the band decided who gets to be on their much talked about “HerStory” panel. I wasn’t on the tour bus when they were prepping for the show. I was nowhere near Ireland when they were recording their magnum opus Joshua Tree. I was a six-year-old when the album was released, but I do know a few things: 

U2 and political activism are like Bono and the Edge, whom the frontman referred to as the band’s “weapon of mass devotion” during their concert at the Philippine Arena last Dec. 11. They are conjoined and symbiotic, and have been so for most of U2’s career. Joshua Tree, the album to which the two-year world tour is dedicated, could be considered the motherlode of political U2 songs, but not its sole source, as U2 albums in the span of the band’s career have spawned countless activist anthems. “HerStory,” the video montage that accompanies “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” on this particular tour, is always localized and tweaked to include representatives from every country visit. You must already know by now which Filipino women were picked to be on the panels for the Philippines, but two in particular caused a ruckus on social media: Rappler’s Maria Ressa and Senator Pia Cayetano. I’m not going into the details here — you have Google for that. But, this is where I warn you: the paragraphs that follow contain my honest review of the show and if you just decided yesterday that you don’t love Bono anymore, you’re not gonna like it.

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U2’s “HERSTORY” MAKES HISTORY

It has been a perplexing two days for this U2 fan. The high that usually lives inside me for days after seeing a solid rock concert couldn’t have escaped faster, after a cold shower of tweets and statuses condemning Bono, U2, and their, I quote, “hypocritical quest for social justice” came flooding my timeline. Admittedly, I did tell a friend about how I felt denied of hearing my favorite U2 song in its pure form. “Ultra Violet” is one of the few songs I like for how it makes me feel, and not for who or what it reminds me of — not that the presentation in any way ruined it. 

As many of my friends who watched the Singapore show expected, it did make me cry, although not for the reasons I thought it would. The combination of music and message, the dedication to women and journalists, and Bono’s weepy desperation on the third verse, all contributed to the anime-like tears that somehow managed to well up in my eyes, even as a part of me already dreaded the backlash that I knew was to come. A seatmate, whom I’d just met that day, told me I was biting my nails through the entire song.

Only U2 could turn watching a concert into a nail-biting exercise. You just think: I could get in trouble for liking this. It’s exciting.

HerStory’s “Luminous Icons” was backdrop to “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”

THE ROAD TO ROCK ISLAND

U2’s brand of impassioned stadium rock — and it makes me damn proud to say that we finally have a “stadium” that could accommodate such a band, even if it is so far away (so close) — is beyond familiar. So familiar, that some Filipinos have memorized the karaoke number of “With or Without You” by heart. Honestly, at one point, myself included. When there are two “With or Without You’s” in one songbook, we also know which one sounds better. It’s that familiar. 

As early as 8 a.m., concertgoers started trickling into the venue. We’ve waited decades for this, what’s 12 hours more? I arrived with other journalists at around 3 p.m. By then, the lines to ticket claim and merch were kilometric. Those who left Manila a little later called the drive to Bulacan a “pilgrimage,” due to traffic and long parking queues that extended to neighboring barangays. We whiled the time away at the Smart Lounge, listening to U2-adjacent music, or at least songs that were more or less from the same genre and decade.

This is probably why when The Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon” started playing inside the arena six hours later, it seemed like the proper culmination to our long, Gen X-themed wait. A friend who’s seen U2 in concert 79 times (80 by the 15th since he followed them to Mumbai) tells me that the pre-show playlist is curated by songwriter, artist and long-time friend to Bono, Gavin Friday. For a band of U2’s stature, nothing is left to chance — from the songs we listen to while waiting, to Bono’s spiels and, obviously, all the amazing graphics flashed on the giant monitors behind them (the largest we’ve seen on these shores). Nothing, except maybe Bono’s opening apologies. “We apologize it took a while to get everybody into the venue,” he said. He also apologized on behalf of the band for taking 40 years to play in the Philippines. “We should have been here every year,” he said.

U2’S GONNA U2

If I were U2, I’d open with “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” too. It gets the blood pumping, riles you up, like the revving of a powerful engine that signals the beginning of wild and loud ride. The band stayed on the 55-foot Joshua Tree-shaped B-stage for “Pride (In the Name of Love)” from Unforgettable Fire, a classic rock anthem of similar capacity to “Baba O’Riley,” “Paranoid,” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” in getting even the most buttoned up of people to sing their heads off. 

They walked up to the main stage as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” flashed across the screen and a faint yet familiar synth intro played in the background. A fellow journalist behind me exclaimed, “Ayan na. (This is it),” and then the band played the song every tito and tita in the arena came to hear: “Where the Streets Have No Name.” 

“With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Every Breaking Wave” (which Bono sings with just the Edge in an emotional, stripped down version), “Beautiful Day,” even “Elevation” and “Vertigo” — all of these songs, in the context of that arena, were at once nostalgic and new.

Bono introduced the band with rave reviews, referring to drummer Larry Mullen Jr. as “the man who put the punk into glam rock and the glam into punk rock,” and Adam Clayton as “former international ladies’ man turned wise man,” right before the Edge blew up with “Even Better Than the Real Thing.”

The band closed the show with “One” from Achtung Baby, the Philippine flag flashing across the mammoth screen behind them, which is another localization that didn’t go unappreciated.

The Philippine flag is projected on the massive screen as U2 closes the show with “One.”

* * *

Part of what made a lot of people anxious was the fact that we’ve never had a concert this huge. Major artists have performed in Manila in the past, but never in front of an audience of more than 50,000 people. It may be safe to say that many of us breathed a collective sigh of relief for pulling off something so massive — back-to-back with the SEA Games, no less. There’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of crowd management, but with U2 paving the way for more major concerts in the future, we can only get better. I just have to say that making shuttle buses from and back to Manila available to the public was such a thoughtful move. There’s nothing we can do about the traffic situation, but at least the concert organizers made an effort to make the trip more convenient than a standard commute. The audience was extremely well behaved, too — even the few who reportedly creeped out of the arena offended, walked out in silence. Faith in humanity is half-restored.

While no U2 concert can be viewed in isolation of politics, the verdict among long-time fans is unanimous: the band did not disappoint. Larry, Adam, Bono and the Edge were charismatic and engaging from the moment they landed. The show was rock solid, they sounded great, Bono’s voice sounded almost as it does on their records, and the crowd (considering the ordeal they went through on the way), was in high spirits. U2 has been on the bucket list of every Filipino who is remotely interested in music for so long, and they finally came. Shall we take this as a win? I’d say yes.

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