The Edge and Bono onstage.
Subtlety isn’t U2’s strong suit. Every piece of the band, from singer Bono’s pleading intensity to the Edge’s whirring guitar arpeggios and bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s explosive rhythm section, feels world-beating and tremendous. U2 once toured inside of a giant lemon. U2 cut a deal with Apple that pushed 2014’s Songs of Innocence to half a billion iTunes users’ libraries whether they wanted it or not. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of its seminal 1987 album, The Joshua Tree, the stone-cold classic that broke the Irish band in the United States, U2 released a vault-clearing seven-disc reissue complete with B-sides, outtakes, a full 1987 Madison Square Garden concert, and a disc of remixes from producer friends Steve Lillywhite, Daniel Lanois, Flood, and others.
The tour to commemorate the album must be seen to be believed. U2 played the first of two dates at East Rutherford’s MetLife Stadium last night in front of a 200-by-40-foot LED video screen pumping out crisp imagery in lurid, 8K ultra-hi-def resolution. As the band presented The Joshua Tree in full in the middle of the set, the stadium was flooded with breathtaking visuals courtesy of star photographer Anton Corbijn. A monochrome highway drive skirted by roaming hitchhikers matched the wanderlust of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Luminescent Joshua trees glowed in the night sky for “In God’s Country.” The screen also pumped out treated live footage of the band from cameras tracking each member onstage, and when the well of tricks seemed exhausted, it mixed and matched flashy moves at the same time, as it did during the dramatic ending of the rarely played “Red Hill Mining Town,” which pitted the band on the left side of the display against horn accompaniment from the Salvation Army Brass Band on the other.
2017 is a fortuitous time to revisit U2’s bleeding-heart ’80s. Show opener “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” with its warning of a time when “fact is fiction and TV, reality,” feels doubly resonant as a television-star president actively attempts to erode the public’s trust in the press. The challenge of The Joshua Tree to the core of the American dream is pointed: What is the value of a promise of prosperity we can’t all enjoy? How can a nation move forward when many of its own are “running to stand still?” The question was first posed to an American working class wracked by Reagan-era economic shortsightedness. (It was hard not to hear the bit of the late movie-star president’s 1980 “City Upon a Hill” speech piped in at one point in the evening as a rebuke.) The clear message of the tour is that U2’s point still stands. Bono struck a prickly balance between calls for unity (“Let’s find common ground reaching for higher ground”) and challenges to U.S. leadership. A clip of an old Western played during Joshua’s “Exit” cast U2’s political stance in sharp relief. In it, a man named Trump begs a town to build a wall to deter danger from outside, only to be shoved aside and called a liar. The song is played between giant fists with “LOVE” and “HATE” scrawled across the knuckles.
You see a version of this careful plea for peace at every stadium rock show now, and I’m beginning to wonder if they do it because they really believe that music can heal the world or if it’s just a way to keep lunkheads from fighting in the audience. What the hell can a rock band do for the spirit when the body feels worn and weary? The answer arrived when last night’s lengthy encore got to “Beautiful Day,” the mechanically optimistic lead single of the band’s 2000’s comeback album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I’d never physically felt the bone-tired perseverance in the song before, likely due to the blinding light of the chorus. But it clicked as band hit the bridge and offered up the sheer majesty of creation as a reason to keep pushing in the face of adversity. “After the flood, all the colors came out,” Bono sang, right before the screen and stadium lights bathed nearly a hundred thousand faces in radiant rainbow light. I forgot where I was. That is the power of rock and roll.
The best U2 songs cast life as a garden of possibilities while pushing back at forces that seek to limit them. This Joshua Tree tour wisely plays just those songs. It is a two-hour pep talk. It is a technological spectacle. It is a warm bath for the soul. It will knock you on your ass.