Rock Review: U2 Does ‘The Joshua Tree’

IMG_4094Playing whole albums from past catalogs is the variation that has kept arenas full for classic rock acts. It’s a way to both break from the greatest hits format and the struggle to push a new product fans may not prefer while providing a one time celebration of the past.

U2 may be one of the few acts to fill football stadiums no matter what they are doing, but celebrating the 30th anniversary of “The Joshua Tree,” one of their most revered albums has made their current tour a quick sellout. Among the estimated 1.7 million fans in 33 stops Tuesday was the 45,000 or so at FedExField in Landover, Md., the stop closest to D.C.

It may be easy to dismiss such celebrations of the past as rekindling nostalgia for an audience that seemed strictly on the 40 and up side. But from the rat-a-tat of Larry Mullen’s initial clarion drumming to the initial words from Bono — “I can’t believe the news today; I can’t close my eyes and make it go away” — it was clear that the messages of much of the band were just as riveting and up to the moment as they may have been, in the case of the opening “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” 34 years ago.

How long must we sing this song, indeed.

The spray of songs that would normally make for the encore’s rush — “Sunday Bloody Sunday” followed by “New Year’s Day,” “Bad” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” brought an quick urgency and immediacy to the proceedings, especially as the attack of “Bad” and its foray into Paul Simon’s “America” set its sights at the soul of the country not far from its capitol.

Then without fanfare came the whole of “The Joshua Tree” in order — its presence announced not only on every $30 T shirt, but in the huge outline of one of the spiky desert yuccas that was the album’s symbol, dominating the 200 by 45-foot screen behind them and extending above it. A shadow of that tree provided the outline of the extension into the smaller B-stage where the concert began.

“The Joshua Tree” is, shall we say, front-loaded with its best songs, such that the thrill of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” — its first four songs, starting with the band’s only U.S. No. 1 songs — seemed to blend naturally with the four hits that preceded them.

Things naturally cooled down with the lesser known songs that followed. Bono said the band was just learning the songs again anew on the tour and finding how they still spoke to us today. And many of them did hold up well, from the strivings of “In God’s Country” to the surprising funkiness of “Trip Through Your Wires.”

Other songs didn’t have quite as much to offer, though, and after a trio of “One Tree Hill,” “Exit” and “Mothers of the Disappeared,” it was clear the sequencing suffered — on the original vinyl and now on stage.

But even as they bowed at the end of “Joshua Tree,” it was obvious they had to come back to crank things up for the encore set.

With a setup so big, and brilliant, huge 8K resolution films by original album artist Anton Corbijn, readied to match each song, from huge black and white highway scenes to red tipped mountains to faces of Americans, there wasn’t room for much variation.

But they’re toying with their encore set, at least, moving “Beautiful Day” before “Elevation,” but that seemed to confuse the singer briefly. Bono asked how the crowd liked the icons they showed only to realize they hadn’t done “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” the song that showcases female heroes behind them.

A little rattled, Bono also seemed to botch the beginning of “One”  (maybe because The Edge was playing it using an odd pedal effect). From there, it was “Vertigo” and done. In earlier stops of the tour, the band had been including at least one new song as part of the show, “The Little Things That Give You Away.” Lately, they have not. Now the newest song from the show is the 13-year-old “Vertigo.”

It was heartening from the start that the band was from the start the same four guys that also includes Adam Clayton on bass, with no additional musicians, playing off of one another and keeping it all feeling like a living thing they were bringing forth. The stage was only 40 feet deep but 200 feet wide. Still, the band didn’t really use the width very much at all. Rather, they insisted on playing within sight of one another either on the B-stage or in the center of the main stage.

As much ego as Bono is often unfairly accused of, the images of the band didn’t appear on the huge screens until at least a third of the way through the show, and even then in an almost abstract, blurry way. (Perhaps we can blame the remote controlled robot camera at the lip of the stage, another new innovation).

Bono’s message through the show was to be welcoming of every stripe — quite different from earlier, more pointedly political tours of their own, and a number of current performers who use the stage to decry the country’s troubling turn. The name Trump came up only once in a brief excerpt of an old 1950s TV show in which a conman named Walter Trump tries to sell a wall. That led to a glimpse of  Robert Mitchum in “The Night of the Hunter,” and Bono out wearing a similar hat to sing “Exit.”

Though Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech scrolled behind them as they played “Pride (In the Name of Love)” their biggest political gesture was to retool “Miss Sarajevo,” a song from the Passengers project, into the newly-named “Miss Syria,” and to show conditions in a Jordanian refugee camps in a film by the artist J.R., while the audience passes a huge fabric with the passport picture of a 15-year-old featured in the film, from one end of the stadium to the other.

Talk about the One campaign accompanied the song of the same name, and Bono had to shout out to a number of leaders in on hand, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Holding off on the messages seemed to bring them out in a tumble in the end.

Ultimately, though, the band provided what it promised, showing how a bold 1987 album from a band half its age could create something of such  power and meaning decades later.

The Lumineers had a thankless task opening the stadium show before the sun had set, chosen perhaps because, they like the headliner, like to use audience singalong. Though they used a fraction of the huge video screen, it still was tough to tell who was who in the hat-and-beard “Ho Hey” act. The trio seemed accompanied by two other musicians, while another five sound men seemed to flank them.

Similar melodies accompanied other songs in their generous 12-song set and lead singer Wesley Schultz took time to recall the first time they played in D.C. at the Wonderland Ballroom a decade ago where he claimed they were stiffed.


U2’s setlist Tuesday was:

  • “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
  • “New Year’s Day”
  • “Bad”
  • “Pride (In the Name of Love)”

[“The Joshua Tree”]

  • “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”
  • “Exit”
  • “Mothers of the Disappeared”
  • “Miss Syria (Sarajevo)”
  • “Beautiful Day”
  • “Elevation”
  • “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
  • “One”
  • “Vertigo”

The Lumineers’ setlist Tuesday was:

  • “Submarines”
  • “Flowers in Your Hair”
  • “Ho Hey”
  • “Cleopatra”
  • “Dead Sea”
  • “Charlie Boy”
  • “Slow It Down”
  • “Sleep on the Floor”
  • “Angela”
  • “Ophelia”
  • “Big Parade”
  • “Stubborn Love”


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