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In 1987, Rolling Stone asked Bono if he would ever put down his guitar and pick up a gun, move beyond his art and take action. He stalled the question by snatching some cornflakes straight from a box, then eventually said, “You have to give me a few weeks before I can answer that.” That was 30 years ago.
On Saturday night, at the first of two sold-out shows at the historic Rose Bowl in Los Angeles, it looked like the Irish Elvis, standing tall-ish in his signature platform heels, was still grappling with how to respond to that.
U2, despite their tendencies towards spiritual schmaltz, are not a nostalgia-driven band. Guitarist The Edge reasoned that the thought process behind doing this — their first-ever retrospective tour — was to celebrate the newfound resonance of The Joshua Tree three decades after its release (though many suspect it’s because their next album Songs of Experience is stalling).
U2’s fifth LP, The Joshua Tree was their point of no return; the record that turned them into rock Goliaths, selling 25 million copies. Emerging during the backdrop of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K., it was praised not just for its rock successes, but for its cultural depth.
In today’s terms, Joshua Tree was woke rock. Originally titled The Two Americas, it explored the difference between mythological and real America, using the motif of the desert to represent the notion of a promised land. Similar to the scrutinized purveyors of woke pop in 2017, U2 struggle with that dichotomy of how to be purposeful in art while also being one of the biggest brands in music. In our post-Jenner-Pepsi world, it’s hard to look at Joshua Tree as a valuable history lesson for today’s ills when you’re walking past an army of merch stands. Where does art end and artifice begin?
Well, for U2 it begins with the indubitably political “Sunday Bloody Sunday” with red strobes bathing the crowd. As a spotlight shines on Larry Mullen Jr. (who begins an evening of unfazed drumming from the center of the pit), each bandmate emerges one by one. The Edge descends down the walkway, followed by bassist Adam Clayton and Bono, who struts through a pillar of smoke.
Bono’s first whoa-oh’s seem to echo around the earth, such is the expansive void of this roofless venue. By second song “New Year’s Day” the foursome are already in their stride. U2 need no time to bed down. It’s an oft-made observation that they’re most comfortable on the world’s biggest stages, but it never fails to impress just how well Bono generates intimacy. For all the criticism in the 1980s that U2 were far too po-faced, he has grown into his voice. It soars and it preaches and it leads the way for a night of sing-alongs.
“Take it to church, it’s a Saturday night / Sunday morning situation,” he says during “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for,” insinuating that he is our preacher (or perhaps even our Jesus).
Saturday was the fourth outing of this tour, one that revolves around Joshua Tree being played front-to-back, and book-ended by an introductory set of fan favorites and a hefty encore. Finishing out the opening segment with “Pride (In the Name of Love),” Bono begins with an a cappella nod to Simon & Garfunkel, singing, “We all come to look for America…”
“Hold onto the American dream,” the frontman asserts, making his first address of the evening. “We’ll reach a common ground by reaching the higher ground. Maybe the dream is just telling us to wake up.” He invokes the spirit of Martin Luther King and calls upon what he assumes is his audience: “The America of compassion! Community! The America of justice! Joy! Awaken! Awaken!”
The band retreat from the pit to the stage. A simple cinematic screen lights up behind them, filled with shots from Anton Corbijn, the photographer who created the album’s infamous sleeve. If there’s one way to make a stadium rock band seem even larger, it’s to place them in front of 200 ft x 45 ft shots of the scorched desert. Joshua Tree‘s opening track “Where the Streets Have No Name” is accompanied by a moving image of never-ending dirt roads, conjuring miles upon miles of barren unnamed streets, and also miles upon miles of possibility. As Bono stands on the drum riser and belts, “We’re still building and burning down love,” there’s an uncanny optimism to the America U2 want us to see — then reconstruct.
“With or Without You” is the first of Saturday’s climaxes. It requires no introduction as The Edge — true to his name — stands on the lip of the stage steering the song with his guitar. “Sing your heart out!” instructs Bono, before the inevitable drop. Ramming up the emotion, he dedicates “Running to Stand Still” to Chris Cornell (“He was a lion”) and his family (“beautiful sweet souls”). Before U2 came out Saturday, “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden was played through the venue. The Edge takes to the piano and Bono puffs at his harmonica. The crowd remain respectfully static.
As the album unfolds and they play “Red Mining Hill Town” (which they’d never played live before), Bono provides a running commentary. “Sometimes songs just become something years later,” he says. “The next one is about the landscape of his country — not just the physical but the spiritual.” “In God’s Country” presents America as a blank canvas upon which something new can be forged. “Thanks for allowing us Irish into the country,” he says after. “We don’t forget that we are guests of the nation.”
You wonder if that statement is intended to relieve Bono of making any overt political plays, of asserting his own thoughts on how to rebuild America. He finds a way to make more subtle jibes at the current administration via footage from a 1950s TV series, Trackdown.
“You hear about Trump?” says the character onscreen. “Trust me, I can build a wall around your homes that nothing can penetrate.” The foursome then launch into the demonic “Exit,” Bono using the runway to menacingly goad the audience. “Eenny meeny miny mo,” he ad libs, over and over, like he’s hunting for the President himself.
Once the album is completed and the encore gets underway, the urgency of “Exit” is lost. First, things take a turn for the cringe. Particularly when Bono injects a moment of “City of Stars” from the movie La La Land into the middle-eight of “Beautiful Day.” Beyond that, he begins a one-man quest to tick every worthy-cause box from feminism to AIDS to the Syrian refugee crisis, thereby lessening each one’s individual weight.
“Would it be indulgent at this moment for the band to give thanks to the great women in our life?” he asks before singing “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” which he dedicates to his two daughters in attendance. Calling for women to “persist and resist,” he sings in front of images of Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Pussy Riot, Hillary Clinton, Poly Styrene, Saffiyah Khan, Ellen De Generes and even Lena Dunham. It feels like a nice theory, poorly executed.
That’s the case for a lot of the political posturing on the evening. “Sometimes it’s luminous figures that light the way, but most times it’s social movements that actually change history,” Bono continues before launching into “One.” “Nothing scares the shit out of politicians more than millions of people organized. The government should fear its citizens, not the other way around.”
While Joshua Tree was genuinely statement-making at the time, Saturday it is sandwiched between other purely theatrical releases. Once the 1987 album had sealed U2’s fate as the biggest band in the world, they had to swallow their own ridiculousness. “Elevation” is the silliest example. It’s accompanied by a giant mirrorball descended above the stage. It is, however the most buoyant The Edge has looked all night.
When Bono launched into the second song from Joshua Tree earlier (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for”), he didn’t need to dress it up with a speech. The song is a search for fulfillment that never arrives and it still puzzles him 30 years later as he continues to seek an answer to quench his desert thirst.
On Saturday night, this L.A. crowd got what they came for. “Let’s do this again in 2047,” jokes Bono. You wonder if he’ll know how to reconcile his past with his present by then, whether he’ll actually want to take the bullet.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
“New Year’s Day”
“A Sort of Homecoming”
“Pride (In the Name of Love)”
“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”
“I Will Follow”
This article originally appeared on Billboard.com.
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