“It’s so not us to throw ourselves a birthday party; we didn’t know if we could pull off a tour that honors The Joshua Tree without it being nostalgic. That’s an oxymoron,” Bono recently told Rolling Stone.
U2 has been the one band that has always went on the road with new material and admirably resisted the urge to hit the road just to cash in on their legacy (you tracking with me, Mick and Keith?), so Bono was right to worry about this tour. Larry Mullen was the first to take the small, Joshua tree-shaped satellite stage at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, a single spotlight following him down the catwalk right before he began the defiant drum march of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
One by one, the Edge, Bono, and Adam Clayton filed out to join him, tearing into the fist-thumping anthem. “How long must we sing this song?” It was a lyric from the tune that Bono posed as a question, punctuated between shout outs to the terror-torn cities of Manchester, London and Paris. The moment brilliantly encapsulates the magic of a Joshua Tree 2017 show: reframing the old, classic lyrical masterpieces in such a way that they can hang in the gallery of a digital 24-hour news cycle without any cobwebs. Bono and the boys cleverly amplified the nostalgic for theatrical effect.
The Joshua Tree made its debut in 1987, a time before large jumbo-tron video technologies propelled the music across the length of a stadium. Yes, they packed an immense screen that spanned the length of a football field, but they would reveal that later. For the first part of the set, they kept the focus on the band within a small stage, making hits like “New Year’s Day” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” crackle with combustion and immediacy. The screens lit up with black and white videos of desert landscapes when U2 took to the main stage for The Joshua Tree set and propelled the band into a spine tingling run through of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” There were arid, creased faces of Native American Indians hitchhiking on this landscape, hammering home the point that everyone else that came to America after them were immigrants.
Throughout the evening, Bono cast himself as an immigrant grateful for the opportunities America has provided his band, yet scratching his head in disbelief about the wall building and travel banning we’ve been engaged in of late. “We welcome red people and blue people,” Bono announced, unfurling his legendary charm and political prowess. In a nod to the City of Brotherly Love, the video screen came to life with text from the Declaration of Independence that Bono described as “the liner notes of America,” as well as Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. “This is the America we fell in love with 30 years ago, America as an idea, as a place of community and compassion, tolerance and protest,” he said.
“Bullet the Blue Sky” always came off a bit hoaky; Bono’s use of a single spotlight over the last few tours has become as kitschy and routine as Gene Simmons spitting blood during a KISS concert. But on Sunday night, the huge screens focused on the deep creases on the singer’s face as a videographer toggled between effects of his black and white image, modernizing the dramatic fl air of the visual that was a perfect match for the bluesy screech in the melody.
Bono’s voice hasn’t lost an ounce of its potency in 30 years and he leaned into his lyrics throughout the night with a new growl of urgency. “Welcome to side two,” Bono announced, remarking that the band has enjoyed getting to know the lesser-known songs of The Joshua Tree as the tour rolls on. “These are like old countries you go back to because they continually surprise you and reveal themselves to you,” he said.
Unfortunately, the experience of sitting through these deep tracks was hit-or-miss; many concert goers could be seen heading for the concession stand and posting comments to social media during “Exit” and “Mothers of the Disappeared.” The band took a bow at the end of The Joshua Tree set and announced a short break “before we take a glimpse into the future,” Bono said.
Gripping aerial drone video of Syrian children playing soccer amidst the ruins lit the night sky, played before we were introduced to Omania, a Syrian teen who said, “It is a civil country, a land of dreams” when asked to describe America.
In a moving and meaningful version of “the stadium wave” popular at most big concerts, the band unfurled a giant flag with Omania’s face on it. Bono asked to “lift this immigrant girl up” while a spotlight followed the canvas being passed across the sections, and the band played “Miss Sarajevo” (a song from their Passengers offshoot).
Fists pumped the humid air as the Edge’s spidery riffs filled the night sky during “Mysterious Ways,” a song the band dedicated to the empowerment of women. Images of Eleanor Roosevelt, Oprah, and Hillary Clinton were broadcast as the crowd swayed to the sly dance beat. With the flick of a foot pedal, The Edge transformed his sound into an angry hornet’s nest one minute before shifting into an elastic funhouse known as “Elevation.” He is easily the most innovative guitarist stomping around stadiums today, summoning past greats like Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix in his phrasing.
As the band prepared to launch into “One,” their signature tune, Bono acknowledged the crowd by saying, “if you’re an American taxpayer, you are an AIDS activist and that’s the greatest story never told,” he said. He then praised George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s work to fight HIV/AIDS, and called out President Trump’s proposed budget cuts for potentially undoing this lifesaving work. His comments were met with a mixture of spirited cheers and jeers, a testament to the caustic divide that has reduced our country to an open and raw wound after our last election.
U2 brought it home by shifting into high gear with the punk energy of “Vertigo.” It was the musical equivalent of standing in front of a jet engine as it launches off the runway. “You’re still here and so are we,” Bono remarked earlier in the set. I was one of many fans who watched them blow the roof off of arenas when the album was released 30 years ago, and it was a thrilling joy ride to swing from The Joshua Tree with these lads once again!
U2 play MetLife Stadium on June 28 and 29. They’ll wrap this part of their U.S. tour in Cleveland on July 1 before spending July in Europe – Croke Park in Dublin is set for July 22 – and then returning to the U.S. and South America for the fall.
(Mike Farragher is an author, playwright, and Irish Voice contributor. Visit www.thisyourbrainonshamrocks.com for more.)