U2, MEN Arena, Manchester

Big words from Boutros Bono
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The Independent Culture

Bono doesn't know what to do. Midway through "Sunday Bloody Sunday", that most troublesome of U2 songs, someone – someone wearing a Celtic shirt – has thrown an Irish tricolour at his feet. Moments earlier, he'd been skipping along the heart-shaped runway that encircles the stage, playing matadors with The Edge – the one who didn't bother with the hair weave – but this has stopped him dead in his tracks. He picks the flag up, then – gently – lays it down. He contemplates it for a few seconds. He's stuck in a moment he can't get out of.

Born to a Protestant mother and Catholic father, Paul Hewson has always walked a non-committal tightrope where the politics of Ireland are concerned, exercising the caution of a diplomat to avoid throwing in his lot with either side (remember "This is not a rebel song"?). Only Boutros Boutros Bono could have held hands with both Trimble and Hume. One false gesture, and his impartiality would be shot to pieces. "Brave people to make brave decisions and let a little island across the channel live in peace," he says, slipping into statesman mode, "that's our prayer this week. Compromise is not such a bad word, is it?" He examines the flag for a few more seconds, and – taking care not to tread on it – he walks away.

It's a fascinating moment, the night's most "significant" in the traditional sense, and symbolic of a shift along the four-way interface which U2 inhabit (between fascism and humanism, between irony and sincerity). Last time I saw U2, it was Zooropa – those PT Barnum meets Jenny Holzer extravaganzas which started with Riefenstahl and ended with Presley, satirising the inherent fascism of the rock show. Tonight there's no satire, little irony, and only one instance of Zoo-ropean trickery (the word BELIEVE on the video screen morphing into LIE).

Not that it isn't spectacular. The cordiform stage, the stroboscopic chaser lights, the b/w screens, the lurid neon video wall and the silhouette drapes are every bit as eye-dazzling as anything from the days of Achtung Baby and Macphisto. And – may the fashion gods strike me down – U2 are, whether you want to admit it or not, a stunningly good live band. From the moment they storm into "Elevation", you can't help but applaud the way in which songs which you would normally turn off the TV, change radio stations and walk out of shops to avoid, suddenly take on a new life.

"Beautiful Day", "Discotheque" and "Staring at the Sun" fly by, and finally, Bono deigns to remove his wraparounds. His get-up tonight – leather suit jacket with black jeans – is a peculiar mix of Paul Calf and Johnny Cash. And oh, how desperately Bono wants to be the Man in Black, one of the cool guys. He can get audiences with presidents, prime ministers and popes, but this is the one club he can't get into. This is why he breaks into the chorus from Joy Division's "She's Lost Control" and tells us he wishes Ian Curtis was still around. This is why he pays tribute to Joey Ramone and rambles at some length about Frank Sinatra. He wants to be one of them.

No chance. The constituency who go to U2 concerts don't want him – won't allow him – to join that set. U2 are still the squares' choice, the band you can listen to without compromising your essential heterosexuality. The biggest cheer tonight comes when he straps on an acoustic guitar for a cover of the Beatles' "In My Life". None of that poncing around, thanks. Just play us the songs.

He begins reminiscing about the first time U2 played Manchester, 20 years ago, to 11 people, and thought they'd rocked the city "We still have delusions of grandeur. Megalomania set in at an early age." The cheesy self-deprecation goes down well, as does a random selection of interchangeable hits: "I Will Follow", "Desire", "The Fly", "Mysterious Ways" (a poor baggy pastiche, in the city where it all began). They could just as easily have played an entirely different set ("New Year's Day", "Pride", "Angel of Harlem", "The Unforgettable Fire") and no one would have complained.

Certain U2 songs, though, are simply undeniable, transcending all objections. You always find yourself thinking of Ross and Rachel and rain-streaked panes, but "With Or Without You" is still a real lump-in-the-throater. You may prefer the Pet Shop Boys' version, but there's no arguing with The Edge's thrilling intro to "Where the Streets Have no Name", the way the tension builds, and resolves.

And above all, there's "One". A genuinely perceptive study of the thin line between love and pity, a discourse between a couple brought together and separated by Aids. This is Bono at his best: when he leaves behind the blustering false universalism of the big anthems. "One" is the greatest song Bono has ever written. He knows this. He saves it for the encores.

He saves something else for the end, too. The Drop the Debt campaign – strongly represented in the lobby – is backed up by something more subversive: some very pertinent stats on the big screen regarding the UN security council and the arms trade. Once again, he breaks into statesman mode.

"Even after Genoa, I still believe it's right to take to the streets. I still believe civil disobedience has a noble place in our history." You wouldn't get this from Geldof. Standing ovation deserved and received. Never mind Cash, Curtis, Sinatra or Ramone. That, my friend, is cool.

s.price@independent.co.uk

Earls Court, SW5 (0870 903 9033), today, Tuesday, Wednesday; Slane Castle, Dublin (0870 243 4455), 25 Aug, 1 Sept

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