U2 celebrates pride and Prince at ‘The Joshua Tree’ revival

Compton’s fifth most famous rapper has never lived in a world where U2’s fifth and most famous album didn’t exist. Before Kendrick ever picked up a mic, Bono had a firm grip on his role as a global rock luminary who could turn songs about rain and faith and restless introspection into stadium-sized rally cries. Both men have been lighting up arenas this year to widespread acclaim, but only one of them bears the twin burdens of deep nostalgia and high expectations that come from taking a diamond-certified classic on the road for a track-by-track revival.

For those old enough to have discovered U2 pre-Tree, the salvo of well-known songs from 1983’s War and 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire that opened Friday night’s show at U.S. Bank Stadium was instantly invigorating. With the house lights not yet dimmed and the tour’s massive 200-foot widescreen still blank, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. sparked the set by striding alone to a drum kit on a secondary stage in the middle of the floor seats, soon hammering out the intro to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as a cue for bandmates The Edge, Bono, and bassist Adam Clayton to casually enter in succession.

As much as the foursome have used outsized production values and concepts to help hold our (and their) attention over the last decade or so, they’ve never lost the ability to scale back and engage tens of thousands of people with a straight-up, Entry-ready garage-rock palette of guitar-bass-drums-vocal. Of course, it helps when your guitarist is among his generation’s most shrewd and influential. Early on and throughout the night, Edge asserted his status as a true maestro of echoey ambience and crisp, sinewy melody.

Bono, meanwhile, happily fulfilled his charter as a driven, stage-strolling ringmaster, though there were occasional signs of fatigue. At 57, it’s easy to forgive him for scaling back on the proto-emo belting once so central to the band’s sound, instead phrasing lyrics in a more succinct and speaky style not unlike his similarly blue-eyed-and-charismatic-as-fuck hero Frank Sinatra did in his later years.

Following a sturdy, timely take on the MLK homage “Pride (In the Name of Love),” the band moved up to the main stage for a complete lap around The Joshua Tree. It’s well established that the album itself was crafted out of a deep fixation with 20th century America—its terrain, its art, its abundant contradictions. On Friday night, those themes were amplified in a series of videos and visual treatments splayed across the aforementioned megascreen, with much of the content shot by longtime U2 collaborator and original Joshua Tree photographer Anton Corbijn. Whereas a stark black-and-white aesthetic helped to define the band’s brand in the late 1980s (call it Ansel Adams for the 120 Minutes set), the imagery for this tour was expanded and reinterpreted into an immersive blitz of colorful split-screen vignettes, live video integrations and socially conscious tributes.

While this tour is a celebration of The Joshua Tree, the actual concert experience fundamentally diverges from some of the album’s signature strengths. Co-producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno cultivated a masterfully subtle, drugless psychedelia in songs that—much as they purport to “climb highest mountain” and “dream beneath a desert sky” and “run like a river to the sea”—are actually quite limited in their musical scope. The album’s namesake is, after all, a scrubby, unadorned plant whose beauty and meaning only reveal themselves when you greet it in the vast stillness of the California desert.

By contrast, the biggifed audio-visual spectacle inside U.S. Bank Stadium seemed at times to transplant that same tree to the middle of Times Square. “With or Without You” felt strangely bombastic. Throaty crowd sing-alongs broke the band’s carefully crafted sonic spell once or twice. “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Exit,” on the other hand, benefitted from the heightened intensity and visuals, not only giving Edge additional space to prove his delay-drenched mettle but also drawing worthy connections between the album’s Reagan-era roots and America’s political present tense.

After completing Joshua’s 11-song circuit, the band took an offstage breather before jump-cutting to the iPod era (what, no 20th-anniversary nod to 1997’s Pop?*), starting with a spirited “Beautiful Day” and a strategic deployment of balloons—the international symbol for “dance party.” In the 30 minutes that followed, four penitent Irish dudes achieved the unlikely feat of stoking up a full-blown pro-America rally, complete with a 200-foot Old Glory on the widescreen.

Of course, like so many European diplomats before him, Bono was careful to define his terms: He variously lauded America (“our second home”) for opening its arms to the Irish, for helping to broker Irish peace, for putting a man on the moon and pulling families out of floodwaters. As the show culminated in a workmanlike rendition of Achtung Baby’s humanist anthem “One,” he called for “both sides” to do better and to never stop believing in “the idea of America.”

In a more localized gesture of goodwill, Prince received an abundance of reverent, crowd-pleasing nods throughout the night. Opener Beck made a quick pass through part of “Raspberry Beret” during his support slot, as he had at his Palace Theatre show last month. And Bono worked in quotes from “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and “Purple Rain” into his band’s proceedings, plus a fond remembrance of First Avenue. While you can’t doubt his good intentions, it was somewhat awkward to see Bono launch into the chorus of “Purple Rain” near the show’s end while a 45-foot high call for donations to Hurricane Harvey relief sprawled on the screen behind him.

The band did a much better job at injecting earnest celebrations of women throughout the gig — from the “Poverty is Sexist” mantra to a video carousel of famed female change-makers including locals Mary Jo Copeland and Sharon Sayles Belton—and the crowd’s female contingent responded with fiery enthusiasm. Unless Colin Kaepernick somehow finds himself on the field at Super Bowl LII, you won’t see this many issues surface at the 70,000-seat bunker again anytime soon.

* I’d actually pay for this – Pop has plenty of good songs on it.

Setlist
Sunday Bloody Sunday
New Year’s Day
Bad
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
Exit
Mothers of the Disappeared
Beautiful Day
Elevation
Vertigo
Mysterious Ways
Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
One

Critic’s bias: I spent much of my youth as a proper U2 fanboy, especially during their ’80s ascendancy. The original Joshua Tree tour stop at St. Paul Civic Center (RIP) in 1987 was my first arena show ever (with special guests: Wisconsin’s own BoDeans!), and I subsequently saw the Rattle and Hum movie in the theater multiple times in search of a similar high. I was mostly on-board with the ’90s stuff—yes, including Pop—but grew pretty indifferent by the early 2000s, as the band seemed more risk-averse every year.

Notes on the opener: Any Beck fans who caught him at the Palace a few weeks ago undoubtedly got a better deal than fans who banked on this gig instead. Whether he’s in genteel balladeer mode or recommitting to the cheeky R&B that made him famous, his live shows always benefit from a degree of intimacy and immediacy that’s simply not achievable in an arena big enough to shelter every living resident of Woodbury. He and his ace band played with gracious aplomb, but the horrifically boomy sound and lack of audience engagement sullied the vibe.

Random notebook dump: On both “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bad,” Bono swapped in the phrase “blood-stained eyes” in place of the original “bloodshot eyes.” Not sure what that actually means, but it’s kinda gross. He also changed the line “one man washed on an empty beach” to “one boy washed on an empty beach” in “Pride (In the Name of Love),” presumably in reference to the viral image of a Syrian refugee child that may or may not have briefly caught the attention of a sitting president at some point.

Overheard in the crowd: “Immigration! Wooooooo!” <chugs a Miller Lite>