SINGAPORE -- It has been three nights since I finally caught U2 in concert. Even after living in New York and in Hong Kong, I never got to see them.
This made the show at the National Stadium in Singapore extra special. For one, it is their first jaunt to Southeast Asia and Singapore was to be their only stop until there was this clamor for an extra show (that took place on December 1) and the one in Manila (this coming December 11).
And the show was – to borrow a title from U2’s songs -- a sort of homecoming as bassist Adam Clayton once lived in Singapore. Said the bushy-haired bassist to a roar from the crowd, “It was a good time to be 14 and to live in Singapore (the Changi area).”
Furthermore, I do remember lead singer Bono saying that the band will never perform in Singapore because of the death penalty law. What changed? But who cares? The rock icons were here at last!
So all sorts of emotions roiled about in me. I became a U2 fan when "Boy" first came out in 1980, and I bought that first record a few months after it came out when I saved up enough money to do so. When the band formally opened their show by playing The Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon” I was already in tears.
The Waterboys came up alongside U2 with Big Country, The Alarm, and Cactus World News all labeled “Big Music” bands. And The Waterboys were also favorites and “The Whole of the Moon” was on their biggest album, "This is the Sea."
Why is this show special? Not just for the fanboy in me and checking something long on my bucket list, but because it is "The Joshua Tree." U2 is a band that is given to reinvention from the Joy Division-esque inspirations of "Boy" to the Big Music sound of "War" to the ambient "The Unforgettable Fire" to the Americana of "The Joshua Tree" to the industrial "Achtung Baby" and the electronica of "Zooropa" and "Pop" and the mainstream rock sound of "All You Can’t Leave Behind" and "How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb" and the more experimental music of "No Line On the Horizon," "Songs of Innocence," and "Songs of Experience."
Granted that "Zooropa" and "Pop" weren’t generally well-received prompting a somewhat return to the basics for "All You Can’t Leave Behind" and "How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb" (but with a more mature sound), this is a band that is always about moving forward and reinvention.
The band has always made their beliefs as a whole known. From “The Troubles” in nearby Northern Ireland to diversity on “New York” they were never shy to speak out and put into words and music what they felt and believed in. I have to admit that I became aware and began contributing to groups like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders that is dear to me as I am one myself. Maybe that is why they are the band that does speak out to me.
And that leads me to "The Joshua Tree."
That they chose to celebrate "The Joshua Tree," their biggest selling album that has sold about 30 million copies, is special. The album is considered as one of rock music’s best albums of all time, and it means something and remains as vital today for the themes of its songs.
The casual fan might just know “With or Without You” and while it is a beautiful song, the album is more than that. Does any other song encapsulate that more than “Bullet the Blue Sky”? That was written during a particularly frightful experience in Nicaragua for Bono when army planes bombed a village filled with rebel sympathizers. That song took a second life during the time U2 recorded as The Passengers along with Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti for the hit song, “Miss Sarajevo,” and they embarked on their worldwide PopMart Tour to support their album, "Pop."
"The Joshua Tree" is an awakening for them. This is where they experienced America as a whole – it’s good and its bad. Its culture and music.
When foreign bands go through this, the result is magic. Tears for Fears’ masterful "The Seeds of Love" is greatly influenced by American jazz and rhythm and blues. Joe Jackson’s lush and lovely "Body & Soul" album drips with New York jazz. And ditto with British jazz band Down to the Bone that released the incredible From Manhattan to Staten in 1997 and sounded like it was recorded somewhere in the Big Apple.
U2’s close to two-hour set saw it broken into three “acts.”
The first saw them follow up The Waterboys’ song with “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “I Will Follow,” “New Year’s Day,” “Bad,” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).” It was a good idea to get the crowd to warm up to some of their most beloved songs, more so since Asian audiences supposedly take longer to warm up than their North American or European counterparts.
They performed these songs in the stage in the shape of the shadow of the joshua tree that jutted out into the standing portion of the stadium. Then Bono announced, “Let’s get this show on the road,” and the quartet repaired to the main stage where with the massive outdoor LED screen flickered on with "The Joshua Tree" films adding stark and powerful images to the songs (sung in their order of their album track listing).
And it was cool to hear the crowd join in the singing as well as in the band’s trademark “oh oh oh oh” that appears in many of their hits.
Side Two of "The Joshua Tree" is slower aside from the scorcher, “In God’s Country.” The songs – “Trip Through Your Wires,” “One Tree Hill,” “Exit, and “Mothers of the Disappeared” make for a more solemn performance that fulfills Bono’s earlier treatise that the Singapore National Stadium was their cathedral of rock and roll tonight. Laced with the blues and folk, it begs for a more buoyant song. "The Joshua Tree," after all, is a heavy one in theme and nature.
U2’s ends that second “act” with “Angel of Harlem” from their live and studio album, "Rattle & Hum," that was born out of the tour that supported "The Joshua Tree."
When the band returned for their encore, they featured some of their hits post-"The Joshua Tree" – “Elevation,” “Vertigo,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “Every Breaking Wave,” “Beautiful Day,” “Ultraviolet,” and “One.”
I love how they transformed “Ultraviolet” (from "Achtung Baby") into a paean for women’s empowerment. They featured on the LED all these women making waves today and that left me wondering if they would add anyone for their Philippine show.
And “One” was the perfect way to end the show as it is a song about unity and togetherness. Through this, they displayed the iconic Merlion and the Singaporean flag on the screen. My mind wondered what Philippine elements they would include for the Philippine Arena show.
The Singapore November 30 show was incredible and historic. Despite the stories behind U2’s songs, they have always been a band that offered and encouraged hope. That people from all over the world flew in to watch the show made it even more poignant. At several points during the show, I was in tears. These are the songs I loved as a kid and meant much to me along with the band. I bought all their records and then compact discs. I got their t-shirts and plastered their posters on my bedroom walls.
Seeing U2 in concert (in Singapore) isn’t only one to scratch off my bucket list, but one to remember. In fact, even three days after the show, I am still buzzing over it. And I slept in my tour t-shirt.
I hope that those who see these Irish rockers at the Philippine Arena on December 11 will experience the same thing. It is that kind of elevation.