This is not the America that U2 was hoping to celebrate this year. Just as the producers of Hulu’s new hit show The Handmaid’s Tale likely intended their series to serve as a cautionary tale on conservatism taken to its extremes rather than a harbinger of our possible future, U2 were surely looking to use their latest North American tour as a victory lap and not a prayer service. The tour, which kicked off Friday in Vancouver, was designed as a look back not only at the 30 years that have passed since the Irish foursome released their iconic fifth album, The Joshua Tree, but also at how far the nation that helped inspire much of its sound and spirit has come.
When U2 recorded The Joshua Tree, much of the U.S. was straining under the weight of Ronald Reagan’s economic and environmental policies and his “War on Drugs.” For as much as U2 were dizzy with joy at roots music and the beauty of America, they made it their mission to balance that reverence with, as bassist Adam Clayton Jr. put it in the book U2 on U2, “the bleakness and greed of America under Ronald Reagan.” That conflict informed the brilliance of The Joshua Tree, which the band is playing in its entirety on every stop of this new tour, among other favorites. How must they feel now that things look even more bleak and more driven by avarice in the White House than they did in 1987?
For the most part, U2’s first American stop on the tour—a two-hour show on Sunday night at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field—focused on the larger, more global concerns that have always been part of their platform. Perhaps naturally, it also veered at times from the America-centric narratives of The Joshua Tree. During a plus-sized encore, Bono used his intro to “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” to praise the women of the world, and he and the band were dwarfed as the huge video screen behind them cycled through images of fierce, persistent females (including everyone from Malala and Michelle Obama to Black Lives Matter protester Ieshia Evans) and worldwide feminist movements. Near the end of the set, they played a powerful rendition of “Miss Sarajevo,” from the 1995 album they recorded under the name Passengers, accompanied by footage of the rubble-strewn streets of Syria and a refugee camp for Syrian exiles in Jordan.
How must U2 feel now that things look even bleaker and more driven by avarice in the White House than they did when The Joshua Tree came out in 1987?
Mostly, Bono pitched the evening as a kind of catharsis for the audience—maybe a little easier in Seattle than, say, Houston—and an awakening of what he called “the America of compassion, of community and of joy,” during the always rousing “Pride (In the Name of Love).” A few times during the night, he urged everyone in attendance to “let go” and “release” themselves, to get as caught up in the moment as he was.
The capacity crowd did so but only during the moments you’d expect them to. They rabidly cheered on big hits like the opening one-two punch of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day”; The Joshua Tree’s holy triumvirate (“Where The Streets Have No Name” and their two #1 singles from the album “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You”), and the killer back-to-back of “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation.” And, of course, the faithful who stuck it out to the end had a justified collective freakout when the band decided at the last second to play “I Will Follow” as their finale.
Otherwise, the momentum in the audience lagged a bit as the band got past “Bullet the Blue Sky” during their run through the entire Joshua Tree. Which only felt slightly disappointing, as it was that point when U2 appeared to hit their stride. The songs, many of which the group hadn’t played since the 1980s or, in the case of “Red Hill Mining Town,” had never made their setlists until now, felt renewed and poignant. The trials and triumphs that the band have dealt with creatively and personally colored every note and melted into deeply felt performances of “Running to Stand Still” and “Mothers of the Disappeared” (they were joined on the latter by Eddie Vedder and the members of opening act Mumford & Sons). And for all the teeth and grit they brought to “Bullet the Blue Sky,” it was “Exit” that truly woke up the monster lurking in the shadows, with Bono spitting out the lyrics and The Edge firing off jagged, Hendrix-like tones.
While the scale of these shows is proportional to the size of the venues that U2 is playing, and the music is pitched at a level of intensity and volume that matched that, the band itself didn’t much follow suit. After three decades on the road, the band members seem absolutely at ease with being overshadowed by the gorgeous visuals that play behind them (much of it created by longtime collaborator Anton Corbijn), and when they did put their faces up on the big screen, they were generally warped and pixelated. U2 seem to understand that, in the hearts of their fans, The Joshua Tree has taken on a cultural relevance that far exceeds whatever the band might have done since then or might continue to do once they return to the studio to finish their forthcoming album, Songs of Experience. Maybe that came as the result of their ill-fated, humbling attempt to gift the world with a copy of their last studio effort through an instant download. But for a night like this, staged in a football stadium, U2 reduced themselves to the scale of mere mortals in the service of the music and their fans, and it was was nothing less than revolutionary.