How long must we sing this song? – U2
Thirty years after conquering the world with their fifth studio album The Joshua Tree, U2 are resurrecting the much-beloved late ‘80s rock landmark for another run of stadium shows. While on the surface the concept smacks of a nostalgia-fueled cash grab, the themes U2 first grappled with in 1987 (particularly of an America divided by infinite potential and its seedy, self-destructive underbelly – hence Joshua’s working title The Two Americas) are perhaps even more resonant in 2017. Never a band to dwell on the past, U2 have re-contextualized the material while staying true to most of the iconic imagery and song arrangements, the end result being a tour of old songs with new things to say.
Another bonus for U2 in revisiting The Joshua Tree live is that they are much more polished stadium performers now, utilizing state-of-the-art visual and sonic elements that didn’t exist in 1987. On that first go around, the band struggled with crude technology along with graduating from an arena band to a multiplatinum monster playing the largest venues possible. The scale was overwhelming for a group built on the idea of inclusion and intimacy with its audience (the ethos imprinted in its very name -You Too). The massive success, including landing on the cover of Time magazine, was tempered by frustration on the road as they came to grips with how to play to audiences of that size.
Fast-forward thirty years and U2 remain one of the top two stadium acts in the world along with the Rolling Stones. The challenges presented by The Joshua Tree and its world-beating success were effectively slayed by the band in 1991 with their second masterpiece Achtung Baby and its accompanying ZooTV tour. A multimedia sensory assault with a humanitarian underpinning (and hailed as “the Sgt. Pepper’s of rock tours” by Robert Hilburn of the Lost Angeles Times), ZooTV set the template for the rest of U2’s stadium presentations including this year’s Joshua Tree victory lap.
As Roger Waters did with his own rebuilding of The Wall in 2010-2013, U2 have managed to strike the right balance between staying true to the original, slightly scaled-back presentation with tastefully updated visuals. At Soldier Field in Chicago, the B stage that was first introduced during their ZooTV run set the mood for an effective opening salvo. Coming to the stage alone, the always-solid Larry Mullen Jr. hammered out the iconic snare opening to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” as the rest of the band filed out one-by-one to heroic fanfare. The Edge’s signature chime enveloped the stadium air as Bono belted the opening cries. Once Adam Clayton’s bass dropped in during the second verse, the band locked in and established a sonic power that would not let up during most of what followed. There was also no mistaking the new subtext in the song’s opening lines “I can’t believe the news today, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away”. U2 would spend the rest of the night making connections between the sins of the past and the present.
The band followed up with “New Year’s Day,” live rarity “A Sort of Homecoming,” and requisite singalong “Pride”. Having effectively started the evening playing a pseudo club show in the middle of a stadium setting, goodwill was established long before they got to the main course. When they finally did, it was a largely-faithful re-creation of The Joshua Tree, including (thankfully) the original track sequencing. As the classic atmospheric opening to “Where the Streets Have No Name” slowly built and the band moved to the larger stage, the screen backdrop came to life and bathed the audience in incandescent red. Once the Edge’s still chill-inducing arpeggios rang out, the concert everyone came to see began proper. It was classic U2.
Luckily for audiences, The Joshua Tree has one of the greatest triple-track openings in rock history. After “Streets” came “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You”. In fact, throw in “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Running to Stand Still” and you have one of the best sides of vinyl ever. The range of dynamics and emotions in these songs still retain most of their power. Side two, while not as outright impactful, still creates a range of moods that linger, especially the slow-burning “Exit”. They are the deeper cuts in the catalog that even Bono joked the band needed to reacquaint themselves with. It was also the trickier of the two sides to present live (the re-imagined and mellower “Red Hill Mining Town” being perhaps the only key disappointment of the current Joshua set). Had it not been for the context of this tour, the running order of these songs would definitely have been changed by U2. No band would ever close a stadium show with a song as low-key and melancholic as “Mothers of the Disappeared”. It’s the primary challenge of the live versus recorded presentation of The Joshua Tree, but to have rearranged the track sequencing would’ve also stripped much of the potency of the whole concept (and betrayed most audience expectations). Part of the greatness of albums like The Joshua Tree (or Dark Side of the Moon, Nevermind, etc.) is the specific way the songs play off of each other within the context of the greater whole. While rearranging the Joshua set for live dynamics was considered during rehearsals, thankfully it never came to pass.
This brings us to a few of the potentially polarizing factors of this show. First of all, there’s Bono. Certain rock and roll front men, particularly those not tethered to an instrument, tend to be larger-than-life showboats. It’s a large part of what it takes to work a stadium crowd. Bono was a stadium performer while still working the club scene in U2’s formative days. He’s over-earnest, hammy and bombastic, but with an undeniable charisma that keeps you fixated. Like Jagger, his persona is one that now verges on unintentional self-parody at times. But the sincerity of his delivery ultimately wins you over (or not). As for his vocals (another love or hate it signature), for the most part he sounded strong. While his upper-register belting is not as commanding as his late-80s to early-90s peak, he hit his key moments. There were also subtle factors like the sound mix, lowered keys on certain songs, as well as the Edge’s own strong harmonies that helped bolster things on the vocal side. For the most part, no one in that massive Soldier Field audience had cause for complaint. The songs sounded good-to-great, both on the instrumental and vocal front.
The second and potentially more alienating factor was the undeniable political subtext that ran throughout the entire show. U2 have never shied away from taking a stand on current events. Between references to the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London to the polarizing political climate in the States, this was definitely a show reflective of Trump’s America (as the original was of Reagan’s). While not as outright antagonistic as Waters’s current Us & Them tour, 2017’s The Joshua Tree has plenty to say about the corrosive effect of ideological division and the abuse of power. Bono most certainly had his soapbox moments during the show, so depending on how tolerant you are of politics and sloganeering mixed with your entertainment, you either found it engaging or tedious. Again, nobody at Sunday’s show looked too bothered by it all, but it did skirt with heavy-handedness at times. Though their intention is more humanitarian than political, it was sometimes a bit much.
Once they finished the Joshua set, the band came back for a few encores (is it even fair to call them encores anymore when they are clearly built into every set?), mostly a condensed run-through of greatest hits including “Beautiful Day,” a crowd-pumping “Elevation,” and “One”. And in an effective piece of theatrical symmetry, the band closed the show on the B stage with the new “The Little Things That Give You Away”. It was a well-planned bookend that shifted the focus away from spectacle and back to the four band members and its fans. It also pointed the way past nostalgia to U2’s imminent future.
Overall, the tour will prove to be another in a long list of triumphs for U2. The audience clearly got what it came for, but in the process was also challenged a bit. This wasn’t just a feel-good rock show. It made you think, whether you wanted to or not. The show also felt oddly intimate considering the capacity audience of over 60,000 at Soldier Field. The inclusion and unity that U2 have always preached was brought to life. In essence, U2 is really the world’s most successful Christian rock band and one does get the sense of a travelling revival on display at their shows with Bono, the evangelist with the Christ complex, preaching from the largest pulpit possible. Thankfully, they have great songs for the faithful masses to sing along with, anthems that are now as much a part of the fabric of America as the dualities that first planted the seeds of The Joshua Tree.