Nothing, not the sneak preview footage on the band's website, nor the pictures on the front of the Spanish dailies, prepares you for the monstrous sight that welcomes 90,000 rabid U2 fans inside the home of Barcelona FC. The aliens have truly landed on the hallowed turf of the European champions. Envisioned and co-designed by Mark Fisher and Willie Williams, the stage for U2's 360° Tour looks like a spaceship or a supersized version of HG Wells' War of the Worlds tripod Martian fighting machines, with a dash of Catalan visionary architect Antoni Gaudi thrown in. It certainly affords every one of the capacity crowd in Europe's biggest stadium a clear view of the biggest band in the world, returning to the live arena after four years.
Tonight we get Bono the crowd-conducting showman and travelling salesman of the startling opener "Breathe", the first of four consecutive songs from the current album No Line on the Horizon. This is an unprecedented move in stadium rock. That U2 just about pull it off says a lot about their daring and a good-natured audience who join in on the riff of "Get On Your Boots" and the chorus of "Magnificent" and "Beautiful Day". But it's the first night and guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr make fierce eye contact as they struggle to lock into the chiming "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", and there are other ring-rusty moments.
Bono dedicates "Angel of Harlem" not to Billie Holiday, who inspired it but Michael Jackson, and ad libs "Man In The Mirror" and "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough", revealing a surprisingly-effective falsetto. The linkup with the astronauts on the International Space Station is the nod in the direction of past U2 extravaganzas like Zooropa and teeters on the edge of the Popmart opening night debacle but, when the stage set comes alive during "City Of Blinding Light" and "Vertigo" shakes Camp Nou to its foundations, no band can touch U2 for life-enhancing spectacle. Bono's militancy informs "Walk On", highlighting the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi. .
Thirty years on, U2 still transcend the limits of stadium rock by taking chances, and succeed where The Who, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen often play it safe.
UK tour 14-22 August (www.u2.com)