Can U2 Redeem the Stadium Concert?

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Can U2 Redeem the Stadium Concert?

Basketball-arena concerts are bad enough, but football-stadium shows are three times worse. All the problems with sound, access, parking, ushers, vendors, nosebleed seats and impersonal spectacle triple when you move from a 20,000-person arena to a 60,000-person stadium. Not many musical events are worth all that hassle, but a small handful are.

I thought U2’s Joshua Tree tour this summer might be such an exception, so I headed for FedExField, home of the Washington football team with the racist nickname. But due to the stadium’s poor siting and infrastructure, a drive that should have taken 35 minutes took 105, and when we got close enough to finally see the stadium, the first sign we saw was “Parking: $60 cash.” Not even Austin’s parking vultures during South by Southwest have that much gall.

After we’d hiked three-fourths of a mile from our parking spot to the stadium gates, we asked five different uniformed employees where to find the will-call window and then our seats and received five different answers, all inaccurate. By the time we were finally in those seats, we’d missed the opening set by the Lumineers (no great loss in my book, but still…). At that point, I was in such an ugly mood that I was sure that nothing could get me to enjoy the evening.

I was wrong. At a quarter to nine, U2’s Larry Mullen climbed up behind the drum kit on the small island stage in the middle of audience. The island was shaped like the silhouetted, tangled arms of the desert plant that gave Joshua Tree its title, and the runway to the main stage formed the trunk. As Mullen, in his tight, black t-shirt, hammered out a march beat, The Edge appeared atop the main stage in a block stocking cap and black leather jacket, playing a guitar riff nearly as percussive as Mullen’s drumming as he strolled down the runway to the island. Then Bono appeared, joined the music and made the same walk; finally bassist Adam Clayton did the same.

This long intro resolved into “Sunday, Bloody, Sunday,” and as Bono, with his reddish-brown hair combed straight back over the collar of his black-denim jacket, imitated an emergency siren on the anthemic chorus, I could feel my resistance melting.

Despite my bad experiences in the past with mediocre sound from stadium concerts by the likes of Tom Petty and the Beach Boys, this sound was crystal clear, as if one were sitting in a studio rather than a stadium. You could hear the lead vocal, the three instruments and The Edge’s harmony vocals both as distinct elements and as a unified whole. This was a technological rather than artistic achievement but invaluable nonetheless.

After three more of the band’s early songs (“New Year’s Day,” “Bad” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)”), the four musicians marched back to the main stage to begin the evening’s primary business: playing all 13 of the songs from Joshua Tree in sequence. On the first number, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the night’s second technological feat kicked in.
Behind the four musicians was a screen as wide as an end zone and twice as tall as a goal post. As Bono began to sing about a land without road signs, a black-and-white video shot from a car driving through Mojave Desert splashed across the gargantuan screen in scalpel-sharp focus. Because the screen was flat on each side and concave in the middle, the video created the illusion that the audience was driving right through the stadium. This—and all the video to come—was newly shot by Anton Corbijn, who took the photographs for the original 1987 album before going on to direct such movies as Control and A Most Wanted Man.

Amid all this magnificent machinery were four small figures—no female singers, no horns or strings, no supplementary keyboardists or guitarists, just the same four Dubliners who started the band as teenagers in 1976—creating a wondrous racket. And they did it with a strange division of labor: all the chording and rhythm was created by the three instrumentalists and all the melody and words by the non-instrumentalist singer.

In most rock bands, there are scraps of melody in the guitar or keys to help the vocalist along, but not here. The Edge plays twitchy guitar or keyboard riffs that are not only divorced from the singing but often counterpointed against the vocal. Such an approach requires a singer who can create and sustain a vocal line without any instrumental crutches, and Bono is one of the few who can do that. The result is a bifurcated sound with one half contrasted against the other—usually with thrilling results.

U2  has made a lot of splendid music over the years, but The Joshua Tree remains the band’s artistic as well as commercial peak. Side one of the original vinyl LP is one of the greatest album sides in rock ‘n’ roll history, leading off with three undeniable hit singles (“Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You”) followed by two could-have-been singles: “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Running To Stand Still.” All five songs proved as effective as ever on their 30th anniversary.

The quality did fall off on side two, whose six songs included only two as good as those on side one: “In God’s Country” and “One Tree Hill.” U2 has rarely played the side-two songs in concert—and some, such as “Red Hill Mining Disaster” never at all before this tour. They’re playing them now, however, and it’s a treat to hear them once on stage, even if you’ll never need to hear them again. Following those rarities was a sampling of the post-Joshua Tree hits: “Miss Sarajevo,” “It’s a Beautiful Day,” “Elevation,” “One” and “Vertigo.”

U2’s biggest weakness was still obvious: their unrelentingly humorless earnestness becomes overbearing after a while. Unlike, say, Bruce Springsteen or Prince, U2 offers no quiet ballads, funny numbers or vulnerable confessions to vary a set’s mood; it’s all anthemic heroism. On the other hand, no one does the grand gesture better. And in a stadium context perhaps, some self-deprecating comedy or heartbroken lament might deflate the scale of the show with negative consequences. And that’s why stadium concerts, even when done right, are such a limited art form.

U2’s biggest weakness was still obvious: their unrelentingly humorless earnestness becomes overbearing after a while. Unlike, say, Bruce Springsteen or Prince, U2 offers no quiet ballads, funny numbers or vulnerable confessions to vary a set’s mood; it’s all anthemic heroism. On the other hand, no one does the grand gesture better. And in a stadium context perhaps, some self-deprecating comedy or heartbroken lament might deflate the scale of the show with negative consequences. And that’s why stadium concerts, even when done right, are such a limited art form.

The visual and sonic splendor of the tour is echoed in the newly released box set: Joshua Tree: 30th Anniversary Reissue—Super Deluxe Edition. A sleeve contains eight 12×12-inch color photos from Corbijn’s original shoot in the desert: a color version of the black-and-white cover, three alternate covers and one portrait apiece of the four band members. More of Corbijn’s photos are inside the 24-page booklet.

A 90-page coffee-table book, Joshua Tree: Photographs by The Edge, contains the guitarist’s photos taken at the same time as Corbijn’s and presented in 12×12-inch sepia prints. The Edge is no better than a competent amateur photographer, but he does convey the starkness of the landscape and the band’s sense of exploration.

The two CDs from the 20th Anniversary Reissue are recycled here: both the 2007 remastered version of the original 13-track album plus “The Joshua Tree B-Sides & Outtakes.” One new track has been added to the latter disc (Brian Eno’s new remix of “One Tree Hill”), but the highlights are still “Silver and Gold” and “Sweetest Things,” two songs so good that should have been added to side two of the original album rather than being shunted off to the B-side of “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

Two discs of previously unreleased tracks are also included. “The Joshua Tree Remixes” includes new remixes of six songs from the original album by Flood, Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite, Jacknife Lee and St. Francis Hotel. These merely make the unwelcome aura of self-serious mysticism tainting the songs that much stronger.

Much different and much more welcome is “The Joshua Tree at Madison Square Garden,” recorded September 28, 1987. Nine songs from the brand new album plus eight earlier songs were delivered with all the spiky energy you’d expect from musicians in their late 30s who had just conquered the world. A jittery tension ran through every number, as if all the contradictions of paying homage to the United States during the Reagan Administration were coming out in their fingers and vocal cords. When they played a snippet of Jimi Hendrix’s bomb-filled version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the intro to “Bullet the Blue Sky,” it fit perfectly.

At one point, between two songs, Bono recounted his surprise at hearing the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” sung by the New Voices of Freedom in a Harlem church. When he brought those singers out on stage at Madison Square Garden, it was proof that this Irish quartet was being heard beyond their homeland, beyond the confines of the international punk-rock scene, beyond their own generation and race. And it’s that universality that justifies concerts in arenas and stadiums. The experience of joining a huge sea of people in a common cause is the only thing that justifies the loss of intimacy.

Stardom, especially stardom on the scale of stadium concerts, definitely has its downsides. It widens the gap between audience and performer; it encourages the greed of people like the FedExField operators and it traps artists in an unhealthy bubble of fame. On the other hand, it’s one of the best vehicles for great numbers of people to gather and celebrate what they have in common rather than what pulls them apart.

While I’ll be reluctant to go another stadium concert anytime soon, I’m glad I went to this one. The four members of U2 were less jittery than they’d been in 1987; they sounded more self-assured and ironic. But the songs on The Joshua Tree are so good that they work with either approach. And I was glad, for this once, to get out of the clubs full of like-minded people and into a stadium filled with all different kinds of folks.

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