Music

U2 in the Philippines: Was it Worth It?

The rock band finally made their Philippine debut. Was it worth the hype?
IMAGE ARDIE LOPEZ
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The big question after U2’s Philippine concert debut at the Philippine Arena Wednesday night is: was it worth it?

We’re not just talking about the ticket price, which wasn’t exactly cheap, but not completely unreasonable either, given the name on the marquee. It’s more about the effort required to go to faraway Bulacan on a workday evening, figuring out transport arrangements and braving traffic and tens of thousands other excited concertgoers making a beeline to the venue; and then, after the show was done, doing it all over again in reverse to go back home, hoping you have the energy left to report to work the next day.

Bono himself said he couldn’t figure out why it took the band over 40 years to make it here. The Philippines may be a huge music-loving country, but we’re tiny compared to the world’s other major music markets. Still, four decades is a long time to wait for arguably the world’s biggest rock band, and so on U2’s one and only night performing in the country, there was hardly any space left inside the 55,000-seater arena.

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Photo by ARDIE LOPEZ.

Full disclosure: I was unfashionably late to the show. It took me and my friend over two hours just to get out of Metro Manila, and almost another two hours to negotiate NLEX traffic, exit through Bocaue (because the actual Philippine Arena exit was jammed tighter than a minidress on a pig), and find parking. The band was about halfway through the Joshua Tree set when we finally found our seats.

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I only half-minded the delay. I caught the band on their second night in Singapore over a week ago so I knew what to expect: a run-through of their earlier hits, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Pride" among them. But it was an altogether different experience watching them again, this time with fellow Filipinos in my home country.

In Singapore, I was on the floor, standing near the stage. This time, I was in a seat further back, seeing Bono and his boys Larry Mullen Jr, Adam Clayton and The Edge perform against the massive LED screen. With the visual cues and aural assault, not to mention the pounding drum and bass reverberating through the floor and burrowing deep under our skins and into our very souls, it was a true multi-sensory experience unlike any other live music show I’ve attended.

Photo by ARDIE LOPEZ.
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Acoustics is everything in a concert, especially for such a massive venue, and based on how the band sounded from where I was sitting, the audio tech crew earned their paycheck. “Mothers of the Disappeared” and “Desire” never sounded more exquisite. 

And as I previously noted during the Singapore show, Bono himself sounded as great as he’s ever been, still hitting the high notes and commanding the stage like the larger-than-life rock star that he is.

After the band came back out single file for the extended encore, their gigantic avatars walking beside them on the screen, I thought about what was coming next. Part of the excitement about this tour is how the band displays their not-so-subtle activism and politics by paying tribute to notable women throughout history. Sure, they kept the audience pumped up through their more recent hits (including “Elevation” and “Vertigo”) before seguing to the hopeful, wide-eyed optimism of “Beautiful Day.” But it was what came next that I was most looking forward to see.

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Photo by ARDIE LOPEZ.

In addition to a staple list of extraordinary women whose images flash onscreen during the song “Ultraviolet,” the band adds a few personalities from the current city or country they are performing in. At the Philippines show, the first wave of recognition and heightened applause came when a portrait of Melchora Aquino, aka Tandang Sora, came up. And one by one, well-known and not-so-familiar Filipino faces stared back at the audience, each one earning whoops of approval or indignant silence depending on their personal politics: Corazon Aquino, Maria Ressa, Pia Cayetano, and others.

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Whether you applauded the band for their courage and political engagement or chastised them for their supposed ignorance and naivete, no one will argue that that segment stirred up emotions and stoked passions, perhaps even more so than their actual presence in the country already had. Most fans know that U2 is more than their music—the band has never been shy about voicing its opinions on a range of issues, and it’s this awareness and willingness to use their popularity to advocate for social change that sets them apart from other rock bands.

Photo by ARDIE LOPEZ.
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“When sisters around the world go to school with their brothers, that’s a beautiful day,” Bono said. “When journalists don’t have to worry about what they write, that’s a beautiful day. When women of the world unite to rewrite history as ‘herstory,’ that is a beautiful day.” 

You don’t exactly go to a rock concert for a lesson in social activism, but at the U2 show, you got one anyway, and, for me at least, it wasn’t heavy-handed. On the contrary, it sounded necessary and genuine.

As expected, the band ended with their signature “One.” I’ve always thought of the song as a plea against divisiveness and a call for humanity to recognize all the things we have in common instead of fixating on our differences. Pretty heavy stuff for a pop song, but that’s U2.

On the way back home, we hung out for a bit at the Smart Music Live Lounge. The telecoms company was a major sponsor of the show. Just before we pulled out of the parking lot, I asked my friends if it was worth it, being on the road for almost eight hours total to see one of the last groups of genuine rock superstars on the planet performing live.

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The answer was unanimous and immediate: Yes, it most definitely was.

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About The Author
Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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