Rock column, Mail on Sunday, July 5 2009

U2
Camp Nou, Barcelona
FOUR STARS

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Hyde Park, London
FOUR STARS

For the first time in a decade, U2 have something to prove. Their latest album, No Line On The Horizon, has disappointed the public. The single Magnificent, which Bono thought was a classic, stalled at number 42, their worst UK chart placing in 22 years.

Some acts might have gone back to basics and played the clubs. U2 have done the opposite, putting on a show that is wildly ambitious even for them. Theyíve booked the biggest venues and lined up the astronauts on the international space station for a mid-gig chat.

More importantly, they have a space-age design. Arriving at a stadium show is usually demoralising Ė the building drab, the atmosphere flat, the stage a distant blob. Arriving at U2 360 degrees, you are instantly intrigued. Looming over the pitch is a cross between a spider, a lunar module and a spindly gazebo.

It encloses the stage, an orbital runway and a theatreís-worth of fans. It could be a superstarís folly, like David Bowieís Glass Spider, but itís not just for show: its bony legs house all the speakers plus lights of great power and reach, so that no walls are needed and a third of the 90,000-strong crowd are bathed in washes of colour.

The design, by Willie Williams, does the impossible, making stadium rock both bigger and more intimate. Itís a stroke of genius. The Barcelona crowd, always hell-bent on having a ball, respond by making more noise than any crowd I have heard, singing like football fans and clapping along like frustrated drummers.

The showís monumental inclusiveness is not just a strength in itself. It also expresses what Bono bangs on about as a campaigner: that we are stronger when we stand together. Stadium rock can have a totalitarian tinge, but the unity here feels unforced. When U2 play Walk On, the crowd wear or wave the Aung San Suu Kyi masks supplied in the programme, and a procession of masked figures fills the runway. The astronaut chat falls flat, but later Desmond Tutu makes a stirring speech on video. Bono has reconciled the two sides of his work.

The atmosphere is so intoxicating that the music is secondary, so the first-night glitches hardly matter. Bono misses his cue in With Or Without You and calls a halt during a promising but ramshackle revamp of One, done electrically rather than as a buskerís strum.

Bono works hard, hurling himself around with chunky energy. The Edge, Adam Clayton and even Mullen all go out on to the runway, at times drifting miles apart. But U2ís force lies in just being the four of them. They have no session musicians, no backing singers apart from the fans. They are small as well as big.

The new songs stand up better than on record. Get On Your Boots turns out to be made for staging, swelling into a tremendous clatter. But the highest peaks are all old: a stirring I Still Havenít Found What Iím Looking For, a yearning Beautiful Day, a muscular Sunday Bloody Sunday, the only song from the early days.

The lights are breathtaking and the video smart, with unmanned cameras chasing Bono round the runway and relaying close-ups on to the spiderís midriff, which morphs into an electronic honeycomb or a giantís fez. This is a show that cannot be captured on a cameraphone. It is a ragged triumph.

Not content with headlining Glastonbury last Saturday, Bruce Springsteen was on stage in Hyde Park 19 hours later. The man is 59, and he played for three hours non-stop.

For 40 minutes, the tiredness showed. Springsteenís voice was ropey and his material middling. The E Street Band donít do spectacle: they do graft, forging magic out of sweat and toil. But gradually they were lifted by the force of their own music.

Johnny 99, stark on record, became a superb honky-tonk rock song. Racing In The Street, a young manís ballad, was sung by a much older one with a beautiful stillness. Born To Run was as explosively hormonal as ever and the 1855 folk song Hard Times was startlingly topical.

Springsteen paused to take requests, gathering banners lovingly made by the fans. Itís such a characteristic gesture Ė open, engaged, communal Ė you wonder why he didnít think of it earlier. With age, he has lost his famous knee-slide, but gained in self-mocking humour. ĎGet me an elevator,í he yelled as he stumbled returning to the stage. ĎIím f---ing 60!í

He played 27 songs and could have done 27 others just as good. He won new fans, kids joining their parents for a day out. He rehabilitated Born In The USA (the album) by playing four tracks from it, all uplifting, and two of them, Glory Days and Dancing In The Dark, made a rousing finale.