A cynic could say the reprise of a rock band’s signature album and tour – in this case, U2’s The Joshua Tree, a youthful exhortation of hope, love and activism – is merely an exercise in hubris and greed.
Cynics are often wrong.
It’s been 30 years since U2 launched The Joshua Tree, and if Tuesday night’s D.C. show proved nothing else, it proved that those soaring, sometimes pleading, songs are just as rich and righteous today as they were in 1987, when U2 was only an Irish punk(like) band with a loudmouth lead singer with a propensity for onstage political statements. Back when the only way to see U2 was to, you know, go to a concert – not wait for someone else to post a video and a ton of pictures on Facebook. (In 1987, you would have gotten arrested for trying to record any part of a live concert, provided you could sneak in a video or audio camera the size of a small suitcase). Back then, Bono couldn’t create a universe of “the real stars” with tens of thousands of glowing cell phones – Bic lighters held aloft don’t have the same effect.
I first heard the album in the desert, of all places. And not very far from Joshua Tree National Monument – I was a young Marine Corps officer stationed at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base in the Mojave Desert. By 1987, I’d been listening to U2 for four years, since War (ironically, one of the most popular albums among the Marines deployed to Beirut in the days leading up to the obscene terror bombing of the barracks). The first video I ever saw on MTV (back when MTV lived up to its name) was “New Year’s Day.”
I always felt some of the above-mentioned irony of being a man in uniform with a pretty clear idea of what my job was and where my loyalties lay while being touched by this music that, at its most basic level, represents pretty much the opposite of what I thought I stood for. And at times (“Bullet the Blue Sky”) it was hard to listen to the loudmouth who says he loves America but also castigates it. Or so I thought. I was young. And had a lot to learn.
The D.C. show was my fifth U2 concert, the first being in Memphis 20 years ago. After I’d left the Marine Corps, after I’d had lived some – deployments, combat, children, loss, and grief – but before disappearing into a wilderness of which it would take years to find an exit, and while I was, at 35, only beginning to figure out exactly who and what I was.
U2’s fan base is almost embarrassingly loyal – nearly everyone in attendance Tuesday was more or less my age – and I’m one of the faithful. It’s not over the top to say that a U2 concert is something akin to a spiritual experience (at least for me). There’s something going on in the building when the house lights go down and four short Irish guys appear on their latest outrageously large and showy stage. There’s a connection and a kinship, the linking together of thousands of people with nothing in common with each other except the desire to connect. To hope. To believe it can, or even might, be better, and that maybe we can “kick the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight.”
The band’s opening set reminded us of that. Opening on a small B-stage in a sea of upraised arms, the opening martial drumbeat of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” evoked a roar and seemed to at least answer the question of “how long must we sing this song?” as the band played like the band they used to be and, at their essence, still are: four determined musicians in a crowded room, with a few loud amps and a couple of spotlights. No massive video screens or laser shows, none of the flash and kitsch they made famous in the 80s and 90s. Just Larry, Adam, the Edge and –with his “three chords and the truth” – Bono.
“New Year’s Day” – the ode to Poland’s Solidarity movement – followed, then “Pride,” which reminded us that the dream is still alive, if only because it hasn’t yet come true. “Bad” – a performance of which became U2’s electrifying moment at Live Aid all those years ago – rounded out the first set, its lingering refrain of “I’m not sleeping” still speaking to the heartbreaking alienation of addiction, perhaps made more powerful today more than ever.
The show then shifted to the main stage, with its 150-foot megascreen backdrop, which dazzled, awed and moved the audience all night. The Joshua Tree set opened in order, with the atmospheric keening of the Edge’s guitar throwing the crowd into the now-familiar bounce that always happens when the crowd hears “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Granted, at our age, we don’t bounce as high or as long, but we still want to tear down the walls that hold us inside.
U2 played these songs with as much heart Tuesday night as they did in 1987 and ’88, and many of us listened to them the same way. Having heard many of the songs in other variations on other tours, I was pleased to hear – and see, after all, this is U2 – them in a stripped down, near-original incantation that reminded me why I bought this album (and two cassette versions, once on CD, and lastly – I hope – digitally) in the first place. No gospel choirs, no slow-dancing girls on stage, no bombast. Just music with soul, heart, and hope.
And a few of the songs I’d never heard live. Bono gave thanks for “allowing us to keep coming to your country,” speaking not just for the band but, presumably, every Irish immigrant ever, and launched into “In God’s Country” in front of an oversized landscape of a Joshua tree with the colors of the Irish flag superimposed over it. “Red Hill Mining Town” included a clever inclusion of a brass section of Salvation Army musicians projected on the screen behind the stage. “Trip Through Your Wires” featured an incongruous (and odd) color video montage of one woman twirling a lasso while another painted an American Flag on a desert building. Stark black and white camera work haunted the audience as the band played “Running to Stand Still,” “One Tree Hill” and the disturbing “Exit.” “Mothers of the Disappeared” (“hear their heartbeats”) featured a poignant backdrop of women motionlessly holding candles.
If the first set represented the simplicity of U2 before JT, the encore definitely brought the flash and splash of the decades after. This is a band that knows who they are and doesn’t dare let you forget it. With a video of a young Jordanian girl explaining her life as a refugee in the Middle East, the band played “Miss Sarajevo” as a massive photo of the girl passed around the entire ring of the stadium, passed hand to hand to the strains of Luciano Pavarotti’s vocals.
After Bono’s longwinded admiration of women the world over, “Ultraviolet” marked the Achtung Baby era along with what has become, possibly, U2’s signature song, “One.” For years, U2 ended its shows with this tune, but not this night. From All That You Can’t Leave Behind, they broke out “Beautiful Day,” then a rousing version of “Elevation” before hitting a crescendo with “Vertigo” (“just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt”) from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
Best show ever? Hard to say. After 30 years, no show is going to feature every song I’d like to hear. And even Bono has slowed down a step or two. But not enough to prevent it from being a truly awesome experience, another grand exposition and, more importantly, a moment, sublime at times, to realize we still are able to dream out loud.