(Planet Me)
Monday, July 10, 2017
U2 : "The Fire Brigade Rehearsal" : London Twickenham Stadium, 07 July 2017

Most gigs you go to, if you go to as many as I do, you come out thinking “That was really good”, or “That was great”, or – if you're really lucky - “That was the best one of theirs I have seen.” It's very very rare you come out of a show thinking That Was The Best Gig I Have EVER Seen. I've had the same gig as my number #1 gig for 18 years, 11 months, and 20 days. Today it got replaced with this.

What could be better than seeing a secret warmup show by New Order after a 5 year split in a club in their hometown?

How about an invite only show for London Firefighters and their guests, to about 50 people, the night before U2 start a tour, in a football stadium? With free pizza and champagne?

Yeah, that would do it.

So walking to work this morning, I get a text message from a friend of mine who works for the London Fire Brigade. “Do you want to see U2 do a rehearsal tonight?”

My response has rude words in it. “WTAF?” is a summary.

From there, in a few short minutes, nights out are rearranged. Babysitters are called in. Promises of free curries fly around my inbox. I can go to the ball. I'm to arrive at Twickenham by 6.30pm with photo ID and my name is on a list. At the last minute I re-read the email, check something, and manage to arrange for Mark Peterboro (who has managed to be at even more U2 gigs than I have, which is actually possible) to take up an unused space. This is the kind of thing that dreams are made of. I'm heartbroken for the people queuing outside who can't get in to see this, but it's not my call to make.

I'm probably not able to tell anyone anything until we're in the stadium itself. Too much to lose. A few minutes after the first tweet, my notifications shoot through the roof, and I manage to attract about 300 new followers in a few minutes and 534 notifications overnight. That's not why I did it – it's just that this is a rare, rare thing and why be selfish and keep it to ourselves?

It's also probably only the 7th 'rehearsal' show they've ever done *

[* - others, from memory are Vancouver 2015, Barcelona 2009, Brussels 2005, Miami 2001, Rotterdam 1993, and Hershey 1992 ]

Names and photo ID are crossed off a list of around 50 names. We are given wristbands, and escorted into the stadiums by the bands PA. There's a free bar, free pizza. There's 20 or 30 minutes of standing in the empty stadium, just 48 of us who can't believe our luck, the bands techs, and around 69,952 unoccupied green chairs. Collectively, I think there's a quite stunned air of Is This Really Happening? This is just another night in a stadium tour as they set up the show.

The drumkit sits casually unoccupied. It's just another day at the office for U2, and they're just pottering about. There's Joe on sound, and Willie on lights, and Stuart, and Dallas all just doing their jobs. And then there's just that moment of walking around thinking about just how rare this type of thing is. Of course I want to see the biggest band in the world play to the smallest crowd they have in a very very long time. But U2 are a thing that exist only on TV screens and record covers. They're not actually real, or human. Even when Bono comes over for a chat with us before hand.

And when Bono does that, there's the really strange moment when I see Noel Gallagher standing over there minding his own business, and I think I can talk to either Noel Gallagher or Bono... and the choice is mine.

Bono meanwhile does handshakes and selfies, and talks a bit. I forget exactly what he says, but he explains that it's a very visual show, and it might not be so good in sunlight. And the whole show of everything is designed : “If it doesn't work for someone in the back row, way way back there, it doesn't work at all.”

This is a side of Bono I've not really seen. The artist who cares about his work. Who wants it to be understood. Who talks clearly with people. At one point, a Fireman and his daughter go for a photo ; he asks her name, and then replies something like : “That's a lovely name. Not like Bono, that's a silly name.” If of course I misquote anyone or anything, can you expect to remember all of this in precise detail? There was too much to take in to both feel and experience to get all of this.

Surrounded by selfies, I just ask “Bono? No selfie but a hug?” And we do, because we could. And it seemed fun. And more meaningful. He smells very very nice. His deodorant probably costs more than I earn in a year.

Three minutes later, and all of U2 are on the second stage, performing “The Little Things That Give You Away.” If I were a betting man, I'd say only Mark and I knew this song apart from the crew and band. It is so very very strange. Not surreal... but super-real. We're standing here, with the whole of the stadium floor to ourselves (near enough), and U2 are playing a song that hasn't come out yet three feet away from us. I can see every movement of every hand, the hair on the arms, the fillings in Bono's teeth, and the way the muscles in the neck bulge as he sings and it is real. This happened. It can never be taken away.

I have had an amazing, privileged life. This is one of those moments.

The band bring the song to a close, and the opening chords of “Streets” fade in. The band walk up the ramp, and four of them stand there. Because I've watched this show on YouTube before, I guess and Mark and I are the only people in the whole of the pitch who isn't working here when Bono raises his fist and the Edge begins chiming out that riff. And fucking hell, that's a thing to remember. Its just a wonderful gesture, for a band, that they don't need to do this, to play a private show for firefighters and their guests. And make no mistake, I'm not a firefighter, I'm here by luck and chance that I know someone who works for the Fire Brigade, and this is a beautiful moment. The kind of thing that many, many other bands don't do. They wouldn't even think to do this.

There may only be 48 people here [I counted them] ; but the band play as if there were 48,000. It still sounds glorious. U2 don't put a show on just because people are watching. This is just who they are. This is where we are now.

Sure, this is their first backwards look. But it feels fresh, and new. There's the goosebumps moment of seeing U2 play “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For” for a handful of people with the same fire as they would a stadium. There's a run through the relatively obscure “Red Hill Mining Town” - a song, if I am honest, I never connected with : and in the live context I get it. A song written by young men old before their time, but it suits the older men that U2 have become. As “Red Hill” ends, the band move to “Miss Sarajevo” - one of my favourite songs by anyone, ever – which this weekend will get its first live performance in Britain, and also ; at 22 years after release, its the longest gap yet between recording and eventual performance in the town it was recorded in for any U2 song. As the song ends Bono stands on his own on the B Stage, just watching the screen, checking the visuals, and his bandmates. There's a sense of, even now, Bono is a U2 fan who sometimes can't believe his luck even though he worked for it, and a pride and care in the performance – he owes it not just to you, but to him : don't be crap now. U2 became what they are, whether you like them or not, because they don't go for half measures. Death – or glory. And they reached glory.

“Sarajevo” ends, and transitions, quite seamlessly into “Beautiful Day”. It's a short but powerful evening : shorn of the thematic connection that links the songs together, it's not – objectively – as whole as the big gig, but emotionally, there's a moment : where I am the closest person in the whole stadium to the band, as they play “Where The Streets Have No Name”, where Bono reaches out to touch the flame, and I reach out too, and I think, is this really happening? Is this real? This is the type of thing U2 do (and have done, in total, six times in their lives, played a rehearsal to a handful of fans in a stadium), and they don't have to, but they want to. Yes, sure, my eyes grew damp with the privilege and the specialness of the experience.

But the band are there, playing “Beautiful Day”, and Bono is just kind of staring at the screen like a fan, and reaching through, emoting the song as he means it. It's no rote repetition. This is no dream. Always give the best you can even if not that many people will ever notice.

Given the strict curfew of 9pm by the council, the band are both relaxed, and passionate. You'd think, given that they've performed “Mysterious Ways” 588 times and “Vertigo” 406 times, that perhaps it might occasionally sound tired. But the band still go for it. Even now, they're still working through it – The Edge requests a second run through the last 8 bars of “Vertigo” to perfect the ending (and I saw the first time they ever played it, in a London carpark). “Mysterious Ways” is gloriously reworked to include the slow building beginning and Edge's glorious only-ever-played-live slide guitar solo, and whilst Bono is out on the other stage and dances with Louise, I stand under The Edge and just stare at his hands peeling out a solo. It's one of my favourite guitar solos of all time – to stand 5 feet from its creator as he plays it is worth … well, more money than you can imagine.

After “Vertigo”, it's just gone 8.30, and so, the band draw the short set to a close, and come down to talk to us, for selfies, and handshakes. I hear a Welsh/Irish voice say “Thank you so much for coming”, and I turn around, and The Edge is waiting to shake my hand. It was probably only a fraction of a second, but still... that wasn't the plan. I just listen to the conversations, before I have a minute with Adam – I thank him, then list off some of the shows, to which he says … charmingly, “You're a repeat customer – I like you, we should give you Airmiles.” Which is fairly crazy, really.

After 9 minutes, the band move on – but not before Mark Peterboro asks each member to play “A Sort Of Homecoming” in Dublin. The Edge wryly replies “That makes sense”. Bono says he's simply The Edges representative and gets 10%. These are practiced lines – but good ones. No wonder Bono is practically a black leather politician with answers that slippery. Before 8.45 we're asked firmly, but fairly to leave, and there's not much argument we can put up to that.

Before we go though, we notice an extra line on the setlist. “Work on 'Don't Look Back' with Noel G – PA Off”. But that is tomorrow.

Wow. That was a literal, once-in-a-lifetime evening.

Setlist :
The Little Things That Give You Away
Where The Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
Redhill Mining Town
Miss Sarajevo
Beautiful Day
Mysterious Ways

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