U2 in India: Band's message of equality, accountability felt timely and resonant, but Mumbai gig lacked soul
While the runup to the concert has meant enduring repeated U2 puns and jokes on needing a visa for Nerul, that the tour was to be a celebration of the band’s greatest selling album and one of the world’s best-selling ones The Joshua Tree, made it all worth it.
Irish rock band U2’s stadium anthems, technical prowess and frontman Bono’s soothing vocals, have over time made them one of the best bands to watch live. So, it isn’t a surprise that people from across the country, and even abroad, found their way to DY Patil Stadium on Sunday. While the runup to the concert has meant enduring repeated U2 puns and jokes on needing a visa for Nerul, that the tour was to be a celebration of the band’s greatest selling album and one of the world’s best-selling ones The Joshua Tree, made it all worth it.
Just after 7.30 pm, the distinct militaristic opening drumbeats of Sunday Bloody Sunday saw the stadium erupt with excitement, marching and swaying while also singing along and playing air drums. Some probably heaved with relief over not having AR Rahman opening for the band, a farfetched rumour that gained momentum in the days preceding the gig. This was followed by I Will Follow, New Year’s Day, Bad (with a nod to John Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance) and Pride (In The Name of Love).
Then The Joshua Tree part of the concert began and the band performed the album in entirety. It was comforting as soon as one heard the opening riff of Where The Streets Have No Name, knowing that the next 11 songs would culminate in the final notes of Mothers of the Disappeared. The album's famous tracks like I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, With or Without You, and Bullet The Blue Sky were received with expected excitement as the stadium resonated with the unified voice of eager fans. Ardent fans sang aloud to the B-side tracks too, such as Running To Stand Still, Red Hill Mining Town, In God’s Own Country, Trip Through Your Wires, One Tree Hill and my personal favourite from the album, Exit. Incredibly underrated, despite the menacing bassline that runs through the spine of the song like a chill, Exit was the perfectly chaotic performance that then led into the album finale Mothers of the Disappeared. The soulful, heart-breaking number rounded off the album section of the concert with heavy hearts abound and a reminder of just how Bono’s voice has stood the test of time in a genre infamous for bodily abuses of all kinds.
With barely any time to reel from the gravitas of that song, U2 shifted gears to one of their mindless hits, Desire, this time bringing in surprise guest Noel Gallagher of Oasis. Desire marked the beginning of the final section of the concert that was replete with club hits like Elevation, Vertigo and Beautiful Day. AR Rahman and his daughters joined Bono & Co on stage with the band’s debut of Ahimsa, a song that was recorded exclusively for this tour. The band has frequently closed their concerts with the beautifully written and composed One and last night was no different. Why Rahman’s daughters were providing backing vocals to Bono, no one knows. But the word “nepotism” was doing the rounds again by the end of it all.
The thing about U2 is given how issue-based their songwriting has been and how much of an activist Bono himself has been, their concerts largely tend to be a balancing act between a sermon and rock gig. Bono’s penchant for political grandstanding makes for wonderful drama on a platform like a stadium arena. It creates a thought-provoking narrative that links songs to causes, making the listener want to momentarily introspect. The themes of U2 songs find worldwide relevance because they urge one to be a better, more responsible version of themselves. So the timing of this concert couldn’t have been more appropriate. As disgruntlement continues to grow over the Central government’s highhandedness and blatant discrimination, the audience nodded in agreement when Bono reiterated the need for an equal society, a democratic one that holds the powers that be accountable for what they do.
Touching upon topics such as the protest following the rape and murder of the vet in Hyderabad to the Assamese people’s reaction to the divisive Citizenship Amendment Bill and the National Register of Citizens, Bono reached out to Indians and their problems through his engagement with the crowd and his music.
The concert was a well-crafted journey to one’s inner selves, the problems we face personally and as a community, set to the tune of U2’s music. It’s a formula that is at the core of Bono-helmed music, where he extols himself as a troubadour of good citizenry, even as he evades taxes in his own country and features prominently in the Paradise Papers. Musicians aren’t above hypocrisy. Even the sanctimonious ones are usually nauseating but music rises above personal politics as in the case of U2, where after a point one could normally ignore the Benevolent Bono b******t and focus on their music instead.
In that regard, all was well until the video montage of powerful women started to play on stage. Women who have fought incredible odds, women who have brought uncomfortable conversations to the forefront, women who have been exceptional in their field… were all celebrated in the video. But a curious inclusion was Union minister Smriti Irani who was jostling for space, quite ironically, amidst the likes of Rana Ayyub, Gauri Lankesh, Arundhati Roy and Pussy Riot! It wasn’t hilarious just because she was included among some great talents and achievers. That she was clubbed in with women who have fought for the rights of the marginalised and who her own government repeatedly attacks, is as jarring to her image as it is to our common sense. On what grounds was Irani added?
Conventional wisdom at the venue saw right through it as a suggestion from the organisers to appease the establishment and received her picture with collective booing. Perhaps she was looking for her Yale degree. Obviously, she still hasn’t found what she’s looking for! (Darn it, I had to succumb to these puns.)
Aside from this strange faux pas, the concert went on rather smoothly. The organisers had pulled all stops to ensure fans had various modes of transport to and from the venue. Nevertheless, an event of this scale isn’t without the usual logistical issues. Complaints of long waits to get to the buses, the TAP card being missing or not working were heard in various quarters. Despite that, it was a well-executed performance from the band and the sound at the stadium was largely on point. Was it the best gig India has seen so far? I don’t think so. There are many contenders for that claim. Mark Knopfler, Roger Waters, and even The Rolling Stones were musically richer though U2 has wider appeal and so would bring in more crowds.
I have always looked at the music of U2 in isolation and been sceptical of Bono’s activism. On paper, it was a great gig that ticked all the right boxes. But somewhere, the concert lacked in soul, and Smriti Irani’s inclusion was the rightful confirmation that the band steadily started to lose the plot post the late 80s. Fittingly, The Joshua Tree stands tall as a lasting memento of the band’s mastery.
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