MANILA -- “This song is not a rebel song! This song is ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday!’”
This was how U2’s lead singer Bono used to introduce probably their most overtly political song during concerts in the '80s.
Decades later, with the Irish supergroup well into their 50s, they opened their December 11 Manila concert with “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” but sans the fist-raising, flag-waving introduction.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” is an anthem really, a melodic but militaristic memorial to the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident in Derry, Ireland where British troops opened fire on unarmed protesters. It’s part tribute, part call to arms. A worthy opening to what could be their one and only gig in this country of beautiful islands, beautiful people, and “tokhang” blood on the streets.
Despite their age, Bono’s operatic vocals still shine and soar. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton, one of rock’s best rhythm section, still provide the rock-solid foundation for guitarist The Edge’s aural architecture.
The Manila concert takes fans through the many stages of the band’s evolution. “New Year’s Day” is said to be a tribute to the Polish Solidarity movement. “Pride (In the Name of Love)" is the band’s tribute to Martin Luther King.
"The Joshua Tree” album is the band’s paean to America. “Where the Streets Have No Name” feels like a spiritual journey into America’s soul. The gospel music influence is obvious in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” a song of spiritual yearning in the land of greed and materialism. “Bullet the Blue Sky” is a powerful indictment of America’s war machinery.
During the concert, Bono sent a heartfelt salute to journalists and Red Cross volunteers. “In our prayers, let's keep the journalists, the truth tellers, the activists who keep this country spiritually safe. We salute you,” he told his audience.
Controversy has been no stranger to Bono and the band. In a recent press conference, Bono sent a “soft message” to President Rodrigo Duterte that human rights can never be compromised. This prompted a quick reaction from the Palace. In a response that only amplified Bono’s message, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said the Philippine government has always upheld human rights.
U2 and Bono have always worn their hearts on their sleeve and have openly carried their advocacies around. In one of the highlights of the evening, the band paid tribute to important women in history, including those from the Philippines. As the band played “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” a large screen showed pictures of revolutionary Melchora Aquino, former President Corazon Aquino, journalist Maria Ressa, senator Pia Cayetano, singers Lea Salonga and Maria Carpena, activist Liddy Nacpil, environmentalist Joan Carling, and climate change activist Marinel Ubaldo.
After the song, Bono praised the Filipinos’ take on democracy. "Maria Ressa will say it is not about individuals, it is about collective action. It is about social movements. So to all of you who'll grow up to be the president or Maria Ressa, that is the wonderful gift, that is the Philippines," he said.
“Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” is about how women can “light our way” in society. Strong women in our boardrooms and in positions of power. Our wives, sisters, daughters and mothers who work hard to keep their families together. And the mothers who search for the disappeared, and those who mourn those killed in the streets in drug operations.
To hear powerful songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” and even “One” in the Philippines, in the age of Duterte and “tokhang,” magnifies the strength of their message and courage of their advocacies. Bono and the band didn’t have to send a heavy message to the government. All they had to do was play their songs.
But U2 is also a great rock and roll band. In their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen said Bono’s “uno, dos, tres, katorse!” intro to “Vertigo” was the “correct math for a rock and roll band.” It’s proof, Springsteen said, that a rock and roll band is always much more than the sum of its parts.
Even with millions of records and concert tickets sold, U2 has always been a political band, probably always be. They have become searchers of the Divine, voices of the oppressed, speakers of truth to power. Their songs call on all of us to become keepers of the flame, to light the way for others.