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Great DVD, and an underwhelming album
on 30 September 2008
Bringing to a conclusion phase one of U2's reissue packages, "Under A Blood Red Sky" was originally an 8 song concert stopgap EP that bought U2 some time between albums, and now, in retrospect captures U2 at precisely the stage where they stood on the cusp of being pretty good before leaping to huge, and potentially being as big as they would ever be. They could have easily turned into a fair to middling act that never got any bigger than the theatre market. Unlike the traditional cliché, which says all bands release their best stuff in their first decade, and that at the end of that decade they are as big as they are ever going to be, this sees U2 just before they took the leap to arenas, stadiums, and having a turnover bigger than many countries.
Musically, the reissue comes in two flavours : the original 8 song LP give a polish for a CD re-release, and a long awaited DVD version of the Red Rocks concert that was originally seen in a highly truncated VHS release in 1984. Taking a step back from this VHS release, the DVD version has been regraded and expanded : instead of the VHS version released, the DVD is taken (primarily) from the UK TV broadcast featuring a handful of pre-show interviews, backstage footage, and 5 extra songs not previously released. Visually and aurally - given that U2 sank most of their available finance into funding the show - "Live At Red Rocks" is a fairly desperate Fame-Or-Bust move in capturing the euphoric passion of a U2 show of the times but with everything at stake.
These were the days before U2 discovered irony or post-modernism, before Bono became someone who was automatically doublethinking his every thought and action to ensure he didn't offend someone, before he put his personality in check by the rigours of fame and the lens of public eye. Here Bono acts up, improvises, makes it up as he goes along, he leans into the crowd which willingly catch him - an act that would see his jacket torn from him if he tried it now by the hysteria of the hungry - and pulls a girl from the audience to dance with him. (I know, he does this now, but now its part of a love song and a predictable act, then it was a youthful naivety). Over time, this impertuous, eager Bono would be replaced by a mature calculation. When you see U2 now - especially on U23D - you can almost see Bono cynically thinking "If I do this with my arms, that part of the crowd will go wild", "If I say this, they'll scream at me". That safety net and security of having an audience on your side was not here then, and with this concert as many others of the time, U2 had to work very hard to win the crowd over and keep them there.
Musically, the Red Rocks show and live album are signs of a tight, hungry, youthful entity : honed by hundreds of shows and a half-decade playing live, U2 were in their element in a way that the sterile recorded entity could never be. The Edge (in the days when he had hair, not hats) leaps between instruments - guitar and piano - with a dexterity he would never show again : on the next tour, U2 bought sequencers. Behind The Edge, and unsung, are the tight, near telepathic communion between Adam on bass and Larry on drums.
For people who've spent a long time with U2 (I'm in my 22nd year with them), it's strange to see U2 as young boys : all floppy haircuts, and dated fashions from the age before they had stylists who told them what to say, what to wear, and before they learnt by instinct and without thinking, how to pose at every second. Here they were learning their craft, at the limits of their ability, before maturity started to reign them in.
In many respects, the audio CD is a disappointment (as it was at the time) : it's a short ride that fails to reflect the U2 live experience of the time, being about half the length of a U2 concert, as well as missing some fairly major live staples that frequented the numerous b-sides of singles at the time and the running order doesn't reflect any U2 show on the tour. Musically, it's a tight and exciting document that easily matches the rest of U2's high standards but falls a bit short in providing a comprhensive U2 document of their live show at the time. Buy this for the DVD and think of the CD as a handy concert EP instead of a live album in the traditional sense and you may be on a winner here.