U2, Wembley Stadium, London, 14-08-09

Oh it’s just so easy to have a go at U2 isn’t it? They can’t be critical darlings because they sell too many records, they can’t be a people’s band like Oasis because they don’t believe in piss-throwing hedonism (and they don’t have songs about nothing) and the cool kids can’t like them because they’re not from Williamsburg and they don’t have beards. They cannot win; they are the most maligned band on earth. And what have they done to deserve it? Making a grand rock show an art form (no-one moaned when Pink Floyd did it) and daring to talk, or that dreaded word, preach, about politics a couple of times in a two-hour gig (no-one says a bad word when Springsteen, arguably the American Bono, does it). Generally, they are maligned for being obvious. For saying stupidly obvious things like democracy is good, bigotry and fascism is bad, AIDS money helps and enough people when they all try at once, have power. You’re rolling your eyes even as you read that. Big deal. None of that shit matters. Is their show any good?

I can’t think of one other established band that would dare start a stadium show with four songs from their new album. A band that has been around for 5 albums wouldn’t be confident enough to do it. A band with 10 or more albums tends to put one or two tracks in, sneaking them in between a couple of famous ones. A band with more than 15 albums, a rock dinosaur like the Stones or The Who, play nothing from the last 30 years of their careers. And yet here we were, in the ludicrous Wembley Stadium, listening to four songs from No Line On The Horizon open the show. I’d bemoaned it, having taken a sneaky peek at a typical setlist already, but I can’t deny that it worked perfectly. People are chomping at the bit to hear songs they know but this band are still making good records and everyone knows it. They drop in perfect pop songs like Beautiful Day and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For as if these are just one of many. And they are. Songs this band might use as B-sides would sit as the best songs in their imitators’ canons.

It’s just so easy. And they are this good not because they are all great musicians, they got this good simply because they work hard. Because they have been playing live for 30 years and at this level, they know what they’re doing and somehow make Wembley seem small. Part of that is due to the cartoonish ‘Claw’ stage set. A staggering feat of engineering and designed to resemble some kind of space station (well, they did come on stage to Bowie’s Space Oddity). Every inch of this contraption does something – a mirror ball at the top some 65 feet up, endless lights, moving walkways, a mic shaped as a steering wheel on a rope comes down for the encore and, perhaps most jaw dropping, the 360 degree screen wrapping underneath the entire structure. It’s well executed in itself but about an hour in the whole thing expands downwards, in a lattice shape, to almost reach the crowd’s heads. Ironically, this led to the show’s inevitable dip as I found the new version of the screen completely overwhelming and distracting. The spectacle should complement, not cover up, the band. That could also be due to the average City Of Blinding Lights being up next, looking bloodless after the immense Unforgettable Fire.

In the 90s, as they made musical strides that ensured they sold less records, the pinnacle of rock show excess was undoubtedly ZOO TV. Playing almost every track from their then new album, (the now acclaimed as a classic) Achtung, Baby, Bono fully took over and, let’s face it, U2 have never been shy of embracing their inner Spinal Tap. Those who declare them humourless must be watching a different band than the one who dressed as the Village People for Discotheque, indulging in a camp, now dated but still fun, remix for Even Better Than The Real Thing and did a show backed by the biggest screen ever used in a gig while performing under a giant yellow half of a McDonald’s M. It’s easy to paint them as earnest when they insert a sample of an uplifting Desmond Tutu speech before the encore, or ask everyone to wear paper masks of Aung San Suu Kyi - but somehow, even though you know you should groan, you don’t mind. They give you the songs, so what if they ask you to think for 30 seconds a couple of times? There’s no reason why a rock concert has to be completely mindless. Still, I’m glad that they went back to making obvious music in 2000, which competes with, and effortlessly outflanks bands half their age - the balance in the ranks has been restored. It’s not just Bono’s show anymore.

The ageless Larry Mullen, the greying but effortlessly cool Adam Clayton and The Edge, a scientist of a man who fills the stadium with iconic riffs, are no mere supporting players. They’ve never been better. Other bands who try and fill this kind of space – Coldplay, The Killers et al – should stand back. They know they will never be as good; they will never put on a rock spectacle like U2 can. This is how it’s done.