U2 Joshua Tree review Melbourne: It’s one love, you’ve got to share it

Returning to Melbourne after a nine-year absence, U2 showed they have lost none of their remarkable ability to woo and wow an audience, even one of 60,000 forced to endure a smattering of rain before the roof of Marvel Stadium was belatedly closed.

“Our drug of choice tonight isn’t alcohol,” frontman Bono said at one point. “It isn’t chemicals, though it has been, it isn’t the Holy Spirit, though the same. It’s you.”

If the crowd could have spoken back, they’d have said it’s you too, U2.

This tour began in 2017 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Irish band’s biggest album, the 26 million-selling The Joshua Tree, but was put on ice in October of that year. A week ago, they played the first show of the belated final leg in Auckland, and on Friday it was finally Melbourne’s turn. It was worth the wait.

It is a massive show, built around two pillars: the album played in its entirety and original order, and a massive ultra-high-resolution LED screen measuring 61 by 14 metres.

It was just the four of them on stage but they long ago mastered the art of filling a stadium with sound.

Behind them, as they worked their way through the album, the screen filled with a series of short films made by Anton Corbijn, the Dutch photographer who shot the album pictures 32 years ago, before going on to make the superb Joy Division feature Control and the intriguing James Dean film Life.

When they first came onstage, though, they ignored the screen entirely, walking one by one out to a smaller stage 30 metres or so in front of the main one, to play a short set of songs – Sunday Bloody Sunday, I Will Follow, New Year’s Day, Bad, Pride – under nothing but spotlights. It was so simple and unadorned it was almost as if we were back in 1984, when the band first toured here.

But then the screen came to life, a vivid red with the silhouette of a Joshua tree picked out in black, and the band took their places on the main stage. Where the Streets Have No Name unfolded to a black-and-white Corbijn movie of an endless road dotted with refugees, With or Without You to a gorgeous time-lapse sequence of desert ranges, possibly the high point of a night filled with astonishing imagery.

As they played Red Hill Mining Town, a Salvation Army brass band filled every pixel of the screen, their horns providing musical accompaniment. As they ripped through Bullet the Blue Sky, a series of ordinary Americans – of various ages and ethnicities – stands in front of a shed painted with the stars and stripes, donning the helmet of a GI.

Throughout, Bono’s voice soared, The Edge’s guitar swept and fuzzed and looped, and Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen Jr on drums powered this machine along on its familiar path.

There was absolutely no hint of them phoning it in, but by the same token nothing has been left to chance, right down to the nods to Australia (images of Magda Szubanski and Cathy Freeman, references to the bushfires, snippets of INXS’s Devil Inside and Nick Cave’s Into My Arms). This was polished stadium rock at its finest.

They finished the 25-song set – eight of those in the encore – playing the masterful One, a song built for the stadium singalong, in the dark.

As the crowd wandered off into the night, the words still hung in the air. “We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.”

For four decades, U2 have been one of the most successful touring acts in the world precisely because of their unique ability to unify a crowd through the act of live performance.

It’s a gift, and they still have it. Long may they share it.

The Sydney Morning Herald/Karl Quinn