Saturday, 11 September 2010

Singing in the Rain

So, for the first time ever, Irish super rock group U2 and its lead singer’s ego came to Moscow two weeks-ish ago to play at Luzhniki stadium, which is the same venue where the Champions League final took place in 2008.I had no real inclination to see them by myself (cue some locals shocked in disbelief at the fact that I didn’t want to see fellow Irishmen perform), but a last minute invitation swayed me. Plus it was an opportunity to see whether all the mocking of Bono by South Park and Family Guy is really warranted or not.

The only other time I had been at Luzhniki was in the summer of 2007 for the Metallica concert, which was pretty terrible. Not because of Metallica, they’re alright, but because of Luzhniki itself. As a concert venue it’s dreadful, as you can barely hear a damn thing in the stands (which is where I was at the time) because it echoes all over the place. But more importantly, the whole place was riddled with Moscow’s police force (or, rather, the Милициа - Militsia).

The moment you arrive at Sportivnaya Metro Station, you will see them standing around grumpily watching the platform. The moment you leave the station, you are confronted with the first of many rows of them.

This pattern repeats all the way towards the stadium, where you have to pass through at least two security checks before you even get a glimpse of the interior.

Admittedly, trying to keep several thousand people in a small area in some sort of order is a logistical nightmare, and the Militsia did pull it off despite being extremely menacing. To be fair, I’ve seen worse in Glasgow (Up Front Security are a particularly charming bunch). But none of it was particularly relaxing.

Given my previous experience at Luzhniki, I had very low expectations in the run up to being graced by Bono’s presence, and I was genuinely surprised… but not by U2. When the support group came on, I had a very odd sense of déjà vu.

It took a few seconds to register, but it turned out that, of all people, Snow Patrol was the warm-up act. And even without fancy audio visual equipment and costumes (lead singer Gary Lightbody was scruffy as usual) they were far more entertaining than the main act. Mostly because of this moment…

…After their set was done with, at least another hour was spent standing around, taking in the pleasant atmosphere of being intimidated by the local law enforcement while watching roadies do all sorts of things on the stage that was specially made for the 360° tour.

Eventually Bono, The Edge and the two other guys no one else cares about came out to the tune of David Bowie’s “Ground Control to Major Tom”. I’m not sure if it’s their “thing”, like how Metallica always kicks off its gigs with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” by Ennio Morricone. If you’ve not heard the track in question then, well, make up for it now.

I think it’s fair to say that Morricone is more effective in kicking off a rock concert than Bono’s crooning of “Singing in the Rain” as it had actually started raining the moment the lot of them walked on stage, which didn’t stop until we left. And yes, I got soaked.

Despite not owning a single CD, I pretty much recognized every single song played on the night because – unless folk are unaware at the dilemma major artists are facing nowadays – U2 weren’t there to promote anything new. All these guys now have to go on tour to keep going.

It’s not like the old days where you would have to sell a million copies to go to number one. With music downloads and the ubiquity of iTunes, U2 et al. simply can’t sustain themselves on record sales alone. This is why the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan are constantly on tour, and will do so until Keith Richards can’t drool over the frets anymore.

And who wins here? Well, the Russians do. An ever-increasing number of bands are flocking to Russia. Elton John was here with his Red Piano recently. Madonna was in St. Petersburg. The Prodigy can’t get enough of Moscow’s money. Looking at the billboards outside my balcony right now, I can see that ZZ Top, Placebo and Sheryl Crow are incoming.

Yet I digress. Truthfully, the gig wasn’t the best because, despite playing their timeless hits, the four Irishmen didn’t exactly rock out. It was more about the spectacle of the thing. All the flashing lights, all the camera angles, all the moving bits of the stage etcetera.

But what was both disappointing and baffling was Bono fulfilling the South Park/Family Guy prophecies of acting like the biggest tit on the planet. At one point there was a pre-recording by one of the dudes on the International Space Station reciting what I think was a stanza or two of one piece, which was followed by Bono holding his arm up and head down like the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics saying something along the lines of “Frank De Winne up der in the Inter-nash-un-al Spays Stay-shun, folks. Guys, just, y’know, keep ah-skin questions. Just keep findin’ ahnsers…”

…to the bemusement of all Russians in attendance. And then Desmond Tutu appeared on screen with an equally cryptic statement. And then the first four articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights scrolled up.

A bunch of other surreal stuff appeared on the big screen, which was eventually closed off by an appearance of people carrying Amnesty International Chinese lanterns to Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, co-sung with the vocalist of Russian band DDT and noted activist Yury Shevchuk.

Afterwards it was a tiresome trek back to the metro station with several hundred other soaking wet people. Upon (eventually) returning home I jumped in the shower before gulping down a large glass of Chilean red.

[Photo of Bono found at Alf Broflovski’s flickr profile.]

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