There’s nothing like a bit of rain dampening a crowd’s spirits to show Noel Gallagher he’s not in Britain anymore. As people slowly streamed into the Sydney Cricket Ground amid grey skies and a steady drizzle, the former Oasis guitarist looked out across a sparse crowd dotted with plastic ponchos. “We do this s*** every week in England. Why are you all wearing ponchos? I bet there’s not a single f***in’ Irish person in a poncho in this crowd.”
It’s not that Gallagher doesn’t have the chops to carry a stadium crowd, it’s just that most of them hadn’t filed in yet and the ones who had were huddled under cover complaining they couldn’t hear what he was saying and genuinely asking whether it was “Noel or Liam” they were watching.
The songwriter-turned-frontman puts on a compelling show when he’s commanding a room of fans who’ve been in his corner since the ’90s, but tonight it seemed as if the crowd kept themselves at arm’s length while Gallagher worked his way through half a dozen new tracks (some only a few of months old).
Alongside the High Flying Birds – a well-rounded mix of musicians (including a couple former Oasis members) – Gallagher hit his stride with a string of tracks from his glory days as ears pricked up at the familiar choruses of “Little By Little” and “Don’t Look Back In Anger” (and who could forget the burned-in-your-brain chords of “Wonderwall”?) As the venue filled out, the band brought things home with The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”, a tongue-in-cheek cover for a man who’s been publicly feuding with his brother for over two decades.
“It’ll stop raining as soon as they come on stage,” Gallagher said, gesturing behind him. “You know why? Cos they’ll be f***in’ prayin’ backstage.”
When U2 came out to clear skies 40 minutes later, you could almost hear Noel’s “I f***in’ told you!” come from backstage.
And there they were. Bono, The Edge and Adam Clayton made their way down the runway to the opening march of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, arguably the most iconic drum beat Larry Mullen Jr.’s ever put his name to. He may be pushing 60 but Bono’s voice sounded rich and full, like he wasn’t out here celebrating the 30th anniversary of his band’s most successful record.
Without a breath, the Irish rockers launched straight into the raucous “I Will Follow” and “New Year’s Day” with its dominating bass line – two of a dozen career-spanning hits chosen to bookend The Joshua Tree.
U2 are renowned for mixing other songs into their mammoth 1984 track “Bad”, but tonight’s rendition seemed especially poignant when they featured INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” and dedicated the track to Australia’s “brightest light [that] went dark 22 years ago,’” the late, great Michael Hutchence. On the 22nd anniversary of his death and with members of his family in attendance, it was a touching moment seeing phone lights twinkling across the sold-out stadium (one matched only by an homage to Hutchence later in the set with “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”).
Any tour promising fans a Classic Album™ in full is always going to draw a crowd, especially when that album happens to be one of the highest-selling of all time. But as with most LPs beyond compilations, there’s natural peaks and troughs – the opening trio of “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With Or Without You” is a hard peak to beat, even if you’re the band that nailed them in the first place. But there was a different energy tonight, the same kind that led The Joshua Tree to such success in the first place.
Gorgeous black-and-white footage of the album’s otherworldly namesake national park filled the giant LED screen (the biggest ever used in a touring show), which curled across the stage like a filmstrip memory showing the vastness of the Californian desert. At other times visuals of Americana and psychedelic colours swirled and danced on the screen, the production like a gargantuan fifth member of the band lifting them to greater heights.
As the album came to a powerful finish with “Mothers Of The Disappeared”, the band was met with a standing ovation. Much of the state has been blanketed by the haze of bushfires in recent days but tonight U2 seemed to clear the bad air out of Sydney. A punter even seized the opportunity to jump on stage and dance with Bono during a decidedly trippy “Elevation”, much to the singer’s (and not security’s) delight.
“Can I confess our drug of choice this evening?” Bono asked the crowd. “It has been alcohol, it has been chemicals, I hope it’s still the Holy Spirit… But for sure this evening, it is you.” You get the sense he feeds off of these moments with the crowd like we’ve fed off these songs for most of our lives.
With further shoutouts to the tireless efforts of our firefighters and the scores of powerful women who’ve carved out a name for themselves throughout history, it was hard not to walk away from tonight feeling, well, elevated. When it comes to delivering a night of wholesome rock ‘n’ roll, U2 are one of the all-time greats.