Perhaps my most quoted quote to my students is Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation; “The place where your deepest gladness and the world’s greatest hunger meet.” I spend a lot of time pastoring students to that point where they find out what they were created to be and how that can penetrate the needs of the social order. Four songs into U2’s first of three homecoming Croke Park gigs Bono is singing about how he was born to sing and was given songs to sing. Nearing the end of Magnificent the fourth song in a row from the new album No Line On The Horizon, Bono stand arms open and declares “I surrender.” It is a surrendering to his God; it is a surrendering to the people (the fans) whose hard earned money put him on this stage, in one of the biggest stadiums in Europe, literally one or two miles from where he grew up; it is a surrendering to his place in the world, where with three chords and the truth, as he once said, he could meet some of the world’s deepest hunger. And as I watch I am thinking that this is where I hope all of my students get to, because that man and his three mates are without doubt right on the vortex of their place in the cosmos.
There is a deepest gladness about this particular gig. Is there some relief that the first of three 82,000 capacity gigs is jammered? Is there relief that after the criticisms about their music and even tax decisions they are back in the arms of their own; their families and fans and familiar streets of home? Is it that they are just happy in their own skin, doing what they do best? Whatever there is a looseness, even in the tightest of sounds, that makes the gig seem all the more uplifting; yes, a trademark but sharper than ever. The first half hour is just full on rock n roll of a stadium shrinking kind that perhaps only Springsteen could hope to emulate. As I said the splendid Breathe kicks off into four more from the new record. No Line On The Horizon is rockier than on the album and Get On Your Boots finally proves itself as a U2 banker, all hard core Edge riff and communal chant. After Magnificent it is Beautiful Day and Elevation and you wonder how these almost fifty year olds can keep it up.
The first breather gives the band a chance to shake it up. On acoustic guitar Desire seems more alive than in years and then the reinvigorated Stuck in A Moment gets served up with American grit. A wee shout out to a gloomy recession hit Ireland was full of pride and inspiration as well as a welcome to the hordes of visitors who had come to see U2 where U2 need to be experienced. An impromptu stab at Brendan Behan’s classic Irish folk song The Auld Triangle was stumbled over with some fun and laughter and a band in their very deepest gladness enjoying the night as much as the crowd.
They weren’t finished with the new arrangements. One got an Adam Clayton bass groove that prevented any danger of diminishing returns but most surprising of all was the complete reinvention of I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight with Larry out front with a drum round his neck and Bono interweaving the party and spiritual side of the song to maximum effect. Unforgettable Fire sounded refreshingly familiar and its inclusion along with MLK and a set ending Bad, as well as of course the mainstay Pride, might suggest a commercial eye on the Remaster Edition due for release in October but whatever the reason the effect was brilliant. Likewise Ultraviolet as the first encore was another reminder of the goodness of songs not tried for years.
All of it was a rat-a-tat-tat of great tunes from band holding the crowd in the palm of their hand for two hours and twenty four songs. The sense of celebration and Beuchner’s gladness was palpable. Opening act Damien Dempsey had said how great it was to be alive and I thought about his words as I simply revelled in the spiritual celebration that this band was giving out. If you want a great rock n roll show no one gets close but if you are looking for another dimension the theology is deep and poetic.
Of course as well as deep gladness these guys also meet the world’s deep hunger and tonight the build up from Bloody Sunday to Pride brought us to a Martin Luther King for 2009 and Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi in house arrest for almost twenty years. MLK was a prayer sent up for her and of course Walk On was originally about her anyway so at the crescendo of that there was a parade of people on stage wearing Suu Kyi masks in solidarity, to keep her face in the conscience of the world. Later Bono handed over to the Archbishop of the U2360 Tour and a film preach by Desmond Tutu encouraged us to keep children suffering from AIDS and Malaria alive so that they would become doctors, teachers and scientists. This is not just good music but music that is trying to be good for something.
You can’t help but wonder if that person in U2’s Christian fellowship way back in 1981 who told them that God had said they should give the music up because it was not spiritually useful was in Croke Park? If so, what would they have thought? Had U2 believed them and become teachers and whatever they might have become would these four men have affected the world in anywhere near the way that they have? And what about within themselves? Would they be doing whatever with the same deep gladness and celebration that you could see tonight? Thank God they ignored it and found their vocation.
To the end and a stroke of typical confidence and courage had U2 close the night with Moment of Surrender, a seven minute slow burner from the new, critically and commercially questioned, record. U2 have never said goodnight with a throwaway hit. From 40 to Yahweh there has been a spiritual blessing before the journey home and this is their theological masterpiece. Of course we are back to that endless theme in their catalogue and that moment at the outset of this show – surrender. As we watch on those big screens these four men, just four ordinary looking men, leave the stage you become aware how incredible it is that they can achieve the astounding impact that they have just made. And we are back to finding that place where deep gladness and world hunger meet. These men are perfectly in their reason for existence. They say they have found grace inside a sound and you simply want them to let you into that sound. They are a force of nature !