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Live Review: U2

A narrow victory of substance over style.

Arriving on a bare stage beneath a single giant light bulb, U2 begin their latest arena show in Pearl Jam mode, still playing at being the world’s oldest garage band. But this is just the opening conceit of an unusually theatrical production for the Irish quartet, which is cleverly set up like a conversation between their past as punky teenage idealists and their present as multi-millionaire elder statesmen with Putin and Obama on speed dial.

Love or loathe them, U2 have always used brilliant high-tech stage design to present their music in a dazzling audio-visual package. The real star of this tour is the 96-foot-long “video cage”, an elevated catwalk sandwiched between two enormous mesh screens, which hovers like a spaceship over the long runway stage below. This massive mobile billboard serves as an animated recreation of Bono’s childhood street in Dublin, a blazing Pop Art replica of the Berlin Wall, and other inspired visual touches.

Alas, the IMAX-level imagery often overshadows the music, which draws heavily on the band’s pedestrian new album, the controversial free iTunes download Songs Of Innocence. Much of this set feels laboured and graceless, falling notably short of U2’s normal super-slick standards. Fortunately, they still blow the roof off with Vertigo, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Mysterious Ways and Beautiful Day. An exhilarating fireworks display for the eyes, but a bumpy ride for the ears.