May 24, 2017
Whatever criticisms you or Henry Rollins have of U2 at this point (they're egomaniacs; they’ve lost touch with what made them great in the first place), their zeal was never in doubt. So what if their early cred took a hit as the band experimented with EDM and dumped their last album uninvited into everybody's iPods? They're the biggest band in the world for a reason. Trying to explain their popularity to someone under the age of 30, however, is a dicey proposition.
How do you get them to understand the same band that sang "Lemon" helped us through the starkly terrifying days of the Cold War to the hopeful era of the 1990s? That they were, to a large extent, our guide through those troubled times? You could start, perhaps, by playing them 1987's The Joshua Tree. The album was the swan song of U2's Era of Sincerity, and a maginificent effort it was. The band's obsession with the American myth would soon lead to self-parody and aural experimentation, but TJT remains a high water mark for the band.
Thirty years of progressively more ostentatious tours later, it was time for U2 to return to a kind of minimalism. For this stadium leg saluting Joshua Tree's three-decade anniversary, the sets and visual presentations were almost austere compared to the excess of Outside Broadcast and 360. It was an unexpected and unfortunate tragedy that the show's themes were enhanced by Monday's concert bombing in Manchester, England. Bono's pleas for peace in the wake of that tragedy weren't wholly unexpected. But they seemed perfunctory, like the show itself on occasion.
The main course of a full spin through Joshua Tree was bookended by mini-sets played on a Joshua tree-shaped stage jutting out into the general-admission crowd. U2 opened with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” from the superlative War, followed by an asynchronous "Pride (In the Name of Love)." Bono launched into that and just about every song prematurely, almost like he was rushed. Maybe he wanted to hurry home and catch Fargo.
Things settled down somewhat as they started into The Joshua Tree, and if we can just gush on that a bit...how great is that album? U2 led up to its release with two fine efforts, the aforementioned War — a militant call for compassion and hope in a world barreling out of control — and The Unforgettable Fire, an atmospheric and occasionally disjointed attempt to come to terms with their identity. But The Joshua Tree rings out with a clarity and purpose you simply don't hear anymore. Mock the band all you want, but there's no denying the power of 50,000 people singing along to every goddamn word on an entire album.
U2's sound wouldn't be what it is without The Edge, and his guitar intro to "Where the Streets Have No Name" is arguably the band's most recognizable (after "Sunday Bloody Sunday," perhaps). Soaring entries like "Red Hill Mining Town," "In God's Country," and "Trip Through Your Wires" anchored the set between better-known cuts like Vegas-friendly "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "With or Without You." Hell, even, "Exit" rocked the house. And that's a song about a serial killer.
Bono and Edge were backstopped as ever by the capable Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen, Jr. (is he still a Junior?) on drums. Here's where you make your "competent drumwork of Don Brewer" quip.
If there was a complaint to make — aside from the choice of braying chapeau aficionados the Lumineers as opener, that is — it was the band's puzzling detachment, especially in the wake of the Manchester bombing. Bono mentioned it in brief, during the intro to "One Tree Hill," reminding us "no end to grief means there's no end to love." Otherwise, he mostly stayed on script, though it was easy to discern who he was targeting in his plea to "awaken the America of tolerance and compassion."
And I feel kind of guilty kvetching about that. The band has never shied from social causes, taking stands on everything from HIV awareness to women's rights. But like Oliver Twist, I found myself wanting more, for while The Joshua Tree is about the American myth, its themes of alienation and acceptance have taken on an almost universal quality over three decades. It's to be expected, in the wake of recent events, for musical acts to hold forth on the restorative powers of music. Last night would've been a chance for U2 to reinforce that.
But it's a minor issue, and from the sound of the NRG Stadium crowd, I may have been the only one who cared. Thirty years after Joshua Tree (and over 40 years after their formation...where have we heard that before?), U2 is still the biggest band on the planet, and last night proved that yet again.
Personal Bias: We’ve been over this.
The Crowd: Longer lines for merch than for beer. That's Gen X priorities for you.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Aquaman's my boy!"
Random Notebook Dump: "There's a reason seven-year-olds like 'Ho Hey.'"
Sunday Bloody Sunday
New Year’s Day
Pride (In the Name of Love)
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THE JOSHUA TREE
Where the Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
With or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Running to Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
In God’s Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Mothers of the Disappeared
Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
The Little Things That Give You Away