(Photo: Joy Daquila-Casey)
“I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
We can be as one, tonight.” (Sunday Bloody Sunday)
From the first stutter beats of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from Larry Mullen, Jr., the crowd at FedEx Field rose as one with a roar. He was joined by Adam Clayton, The Edge, and Bono, who tore into the lyrics from a song about the IRA bombing of Armagh that has only deepened in meaning in the decades since.
The first four songs, done on a stage in the shape of a Joshua Tree that extended into the audience, are standards on their concert set list: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” “Bad,” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).” They were done with gusto, the crowd shouting out each lyric, but with no onstage pyrotechnics except the spotlights. But when the band pulled back to the enormous main stage they turned to “Where the Streets Have No Name” and The Joshua Tree.
Every tour that U2 performs is a spectacular staging of music, media, and art. Along the way, over all these years, their designers have even invented new technologies to create what Bono called “an epic experience” each night.
The set for Joshua Tree is deceptively simple, an enormous backboard of desert tan with the outline of the iconic Joshua Tree from the original photo shoot splayed out and rising above the backdrop. But as the band gets into full swing the whole thing lights up, serving as a photo montage, a video screen, and a live action feed of the band, usually all at once.
It’s breathtaking, especially as we see the band at first silhouetted as black figures against a luminous crimson background, and later as we are at the wheel of a car driving down the yellow stripe of a road through the desert. The backdrop dwarfs the band itself, but we see them in individual closeups throughout the concert.
The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour is a return to the album that gave U2 their first international acclaim back in 1987, sold 20 million units world-wide, garnered them numerous awards, and gave them superstar standing.
Reagan was in the White House and Thatcher was at 10 Downing Street. The world they had made looked pretty grim and U2’s impassioned lyrics and music reflected the dichotomy between America as myth and America as an idea, something that Bono riffed on in this concert. This album was a direct result of U2’s fascination with America as a place of dreams and of bitter reality. All these years later the songs have taken on new meaning in this partisan minefield, this moment in American history that is more conflicted than when the album was born.
For me The Joshua Tree was a spiritual lifesaver. It came out in 1987, just months before my son was born. I was running a small graphics business out of the top floor of the Sligo SDA Church office, working 14 hours a day, and adjunct teaching World Religions at Columbia Union College. After working all day designing and laying out newsletters, magazines, brochures, and flyers, I’d transition to professor mode in the evening. When I’d finish teaching at 9 pm I’d go up to my office and work all night finishing up designs and meeting deadlines. I had a cassette of Unforgettable Fire, U2’s fourth album but the first one I’d bought. When Joshua Tree came out in March 1987 I played it over and over until the tracks were imbedded in my unconscious. The whole album reflected my spiritual restlessness and hope. If I felt like I was “Running to Stand Still” I also knew that “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
On this night U2 served up the whole album, working through each song with alacrity and vigor, each one invested with the sweetness of nostalgia as well as the urgency of the present moment. Finishing with the haunting “Mothers of the Disappeared,” they waved goodbye to the crowd. But we knew they’d be back.
The encore set of six songs began with “Miss Sarajevo” with the video realigned to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and complete with the soaring verses by Luciano Pavarotti. That was followed by “Beautiful Day,” with Bono exclaiming, “When women of the world unite to rewrite history as her story, that is a beautiful day!”
One of the most poignant moments was during “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” in which a photo montage of women leaders from Rosa Parks to Michelle Obama to Dorothy Haight, Gloria Steinem, Malala, Connie Mudenda, and many others filled the screens.
(Photo: Sriram Gopal)
During the intro to “One” Bono called out politicians like Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Kay Grainger (R-TX), personal friends of his, and celebrated the fact that 18 million people around the world are surviving AIDS by taking one pill a day paid for by US taxpayers dollars.
The encore and the show finished with “Vertigo,” amidst a spectacular visual display that could have given the faint of heart cardiac arrest.
In 1991 U2 released Achtung Baby, an album that was a decided departure from their previous albums. The band felt they were stagnating and that they “had to go away and dream it all up again.” Bono described their new direction as “four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.”
All these years later the tree has miraculously survived and we are the better for it.