The Two Americas – U2 live at Soldier Field

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.

Gilmour Shines On at United Center

So I am sitting down to write this a few days after David Gilmour’s final show in Chicago, following a weeklong stint that included one show at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre sandwiched by two larger-scale shows at the United Center. The U.S. tour, his first in 10 years, is a fairly exclusive affair encompassing only three cities (L.A., Chicago, and New York) before heading back to Europe. And at 70 years old, there’s no telling when or even if he’ll be back. Other than the early Floyd years, Gilmour has never been much of a road warrior. Since taking the helm of Pink Floyd in 1986 following the legal departure of founding member Roger Waters, he’s manned exactly two (albeit massive) world tours under the Floyd banner, the first from 1987-1990 and the second in 1994. He’s done very limited U.S. touring on his own, the last time in support of 2006’s On An Island – a show I was foolish enough to miss, despite being a full-on Floyd freak (if you know the band as Sigma 6, the Architectural Abdabs and the Meggadeaths, you are far beyond the realm of casual fan). So to say that I was grateful to get one more opportunity to see one of my favorite musicians of all time (and favorite guitarist bar none) is an understatement.

In a way, the delayed gratification worked in my favor. Gilmour is currently touring in support of 2015’s Rattle That Lock, a much stronger solo album than his last in my opinion, which makes the introduction of new material in a show heavy on classic rock standards much more palatable. Newer songs like the Leonard Cohen-influenced “Faces of Stone” and “In Any Tongue” held their own much better than the On An Island material last time around. The overall setlist was stronger than 2006 as well, with a brisker pacing of the solo and Floyd material. While no longer doing the epic “Echoes” (most likely due to the loss of close musical partner Richard Wright in 2008, whose sonic signature is all over that song), we got the reappearance of “Us and Them,” the stinging blues of “What Do You Want from Me,” the thundering “Sorrow,” and Wall classic “Run Like Hell”.  He also brought back Mr. Screen, the Vari-Lite-rigged circular projection surface made famous on all of the classic Floyd tours of the ‘70s and ‘80s (but missing in 2006’s solo outing). The venues are bigger this time around as well, with more arenas than theaters playing host and this is music custom-made for large, panoramic spaces.

The pre-show itself was the first sonic treat of the evening for Floyd obsessives, as familiar sound effects pulsed through the P.A. (a plane flying overhead, helicopter sounds, the backwards-guitar seagull wails from “Echoes” and spoken-word snippets from Dark Side of the Moon to name a few).  This provided the first clue as to the first-rate sound engineering that would take place all evening, the best concert sound I’ve heard since, ironically enough, Roger Waters’s solo version of The Wall a few years back. Pink Floyd’s concert sound is just as legendary in the industry as their visual effects, and Friday’s show at United was all-enveloping. You felt the music deep in your bones; it was that loud, dynamic, and three-dimensional.

The show itself opened proper with the instrumental “5 AM” off the new album, Gilmour’s signature elegiac guitar tone instantly recognizable as it cut through the gentle, cinematic backing. One note in and the audience instantly erupted in rapture and would pretty much remain that way throughout the entire performance (to the point where Gilmour himself would make reference to the crowd’s enthusiasm several times during the evening). This understated opening soon gave way to the bouncy “Rattle That Lock,” inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost. Along with “Today,” the song’s production harkened back to a late-‘80s funk-lite feel. The sound was punchy and huge, with Gilmour’s strong vocals cutting through the mix. He sounded confident and in command from the start. The rest of the first set breezed by in a near-perfect blend of new and old: “Faces of Stone” led to a surprisingly early appearance of “Wish You Were Here,” a ballsy gambit that actually worked. The lush harmonies of the Wright tribute “A Boat Lies Waiting” (especially fitting with Wright’s daughter, son, and grandson in attendance) sounded enormous and rich, shimmering like the surface of a lake. This was followed by the ultra-serene “The Blue,” which obviously didn’t have the intended effect on the two “gentlemen” sitting near me who nearly broke out in a fight. Grown men. At a David Gilmour concert. Perhaps someone wasn’t sharing the herbal “enhancements” that substituted for oxygen at this show? Who knows, but the foolhardy twosome nearly got themselves bounced by a whole phalanx of United Center security. Ah, good times…

After a one-two punch of “Money” and “Us and Them,” the first set closed with the foreboding “High Hopes” off 1994’s The Division Bell. Accompanied by iconic Storm Thorgerson video, Gilmour played both nylon guitar and pedal steel with exquisite taste and ease. The band then took a fifteen minute intermission before resuming the show with the Syd Barrett-era “Astronomy Domine,” the psychedelic lighting and projections harkening back to 1967’s London underground. The nod to Floyd-founder Barrett continued with classic requiem “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the introductory guitar figure generating some of the biggest cheers of the night. This classic Floyd staple and Gilmour showcase was played alongside more vintage Thorgerson footage. After watching it on the Pulse video and DVD for so many years, it was a real treat to see this footage projected live. It has aged beautifully. Other highlights of the second set included the pastoral “Fat Old Sun,” the aforementioned “Sorrow” and the visual/sonic attack of “Run Like Hell”. Whether comforting or menacing, Gilmour’s guitar tone was impeccable throughout. All of the signature hallmarks were there in abundance: the refined bends, sustained and delayed notes, all gleaming like liquid glass.

The show closed with an encore of “Time,” “Breathe (Reprise),” and of course “Comfortably Numb”.  After playing this song and all-time classic guitar solo so many times, one could forgive Gilmour for struggling to find the requisite power and feeling anymore, yet he delivered. Perhaps it was the energy of the crowd at United Center spurring him on, but it felt as sublime and transcendent as you would hope for, the vivid lasershow a mere backdrop for the real magic happening onstage. Credit must be given to his backing band and singers, many of whom are veterans of previous Floyd and solo tours. They injected fresh life into these classic warhorses, custodians of some of the most beloved staples in rock history. It also helps that Gilmour now tours at his own pace and terms. Financially, he’s never had to tour again past the ’87-’90 trek, but like McCartney he does so because pure musicianship courses through his veins. He can now cherry pick his live appearances and it shows. This is not a working musician slogging it out on a 100 + date tour. This is a relaxed veteran at peace with himself and his legacy. His current state-of-grace is a blessing to his audience and if this turns out to be a final victory lap, it will be a more than worthy one.

 

SET LIST:

First half: 5am, Rattle That Lock, Faces Of Stone, Wish You Were Here, What Do You Want From Me, A Boat Lies Waiting, The Blue, Money, Us And Them, In Any Tongue, High Hopes.

Second half: Astronomy Domine, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Fat Old Sun, Coming Back To Life, On An Island, The Girl In The Yellow Dress, Today, Sorrow, Run Like Hell.

Encore: Time/Breathe(rep), Comfortably Numb