“Anything strange or startling?”
That was the phrase that Bob Hewson would use to instigate conversation with his son Paul, aka Bono, aka one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, when they would meet for a pint in the Sorrento Lounge at Finnegan’s pub in Dalkey. What Bob might have found both strange and startling is his 62-year-old son on the stage of the Olympia Theatre in 2022, flicking through scenes from his life, singing songs from his lengthy career, and telling stories about his dad in front of an audience that included the Irish President, Taoiseach and Tanaiste - all hanging on his every word. Strange and startling, indeed.
Ireland has always had a complicated relationship with U2. More specifically, with Bono. To the naysayers, he’s a motormouthed do-gooder. A ‘tax-dodger’. A rock star with an inflated ego who should just keep his nose out of politics. A ‘pox’, according to a ubiquitous graffiti artist on Dublin’s North Quays. To fans, he is a hero. A musician with a conscience, who uses his platform for good. One of the greatest rock frontmen of all time. A quintessential showman. A reason to be proud to be Irish.
Last night, in the hometown (and smallest) venue of his ‘Surrender’ book tour (aka ‘Me buke wot I wrote meself’), Bono was a multitude of characters. Regaling stories from his life - many of them incorporating Bob, his wife Ali and of course, his bandmates Edge, Larry and Adam. He met them and Ali in the same week as a teenager, he explains: “Sorted my whole life out in the space of a week. Done.”
Earnestness is part of the package with Bono. What you’re not expecting is the wit, the talent for mimicry (his Adam Clayton is brilliant, his Luciano Pavarotti superb) or the poignancy. There is plenty of the latter: scenes from growing up on Cedarwood Road, the sudden death of his mother Iris when he was 14, his relationship with Ali - the woman he credits for ‘saving him from himself’. There are moments of genuine tenderness, when we get a glimpse of Paul; then he flips on a dime and is suddenly Bono again, frantically urging his teenage bandmates to forge what will become ‘I Will Follow’ from his skewed imagination, or hilariously recalling the time that Larry and Adam literally hid from Pavarotti when he arrived unannounced in Dublin to convince U2 to play his War Child gig in Modena.
Then there’s the music. Backed by a group of talented musicians - Gemma Doherty of Saint Sister on harp and keys, Kate Ellis of Crash Ensemble on cello and producer/musician Jacknife Lee on electronics - the four-piece weave wonderfully pared-back versions of U2’s biggest hits. Behind them, screens display animated sketches, accompanied by lyrics or text from the ‘buke’. It’s an engaging and understated set - and it’s only enhanced by the fact that the view is unhindered by a sea of phones recording every moment, thanks to Yondr. The arrangements of these songs - everything from ‘City of Blinding Lights’, ‘Beautiful Day’, ‘With or Without You’ and ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’ - are all done beautifully and sympathetically to the tone of the show. He ends with an a cappella ‘Torna a Surriento’, or ‘Return to Sorrento’ - another nod to Bob and his love of opera - that is a show-stopper not because it’s technically impressive, but because it is saturated with emotion, memory and love. Not least because he dedicates it to his 'two brothers'.
This show could have been another pompous ego-trip for another rock star, but the audience filed out feeling like they maybe knew Bono the man a little better than they had before. Perhaps understood where he’s coming from a bit more. And guess what? It turns out that he seems like a pretty nice guy, all in all.
I listened to U2 all the way home.