I flew to Seattle Sunday morning, chasing the tail of the dragon I first caught in ’98 in driving cross-country to see Pearl Jam play in San Diego. U2 has embarked on the 30th anniversary tour of their legendary, pivotal album The Joshua Tree, and for a plane ticket and a sleepless night I had the opportunity to witness the U.S. tour opener in my favorite city in the world.
The Joshua Tree is now 30 years old, and while the era has passed into the ether of the pre-digital era (and with it the actual Joshua Tree shown on the cover that Anton Corbijn shot), the yearning desperation, the sense of existential urgency, rings with a new frequency in an age of discord, discontent and leader misrepresentation.
For 72,000 fans to Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, the spectacle was buoyed by a unique vehicle: a new set of Corbijn videos played behind the band at an unprecedented 8K mega video screen wide scale – giving The Joshua Tree the chance to be a visual album at last. The screens provided a modern visual transport to the arid California desert essence that the album cover originally delivered (Corbijn was in attendance as well).
The show was divided into four chronologically-arranged sections, with a five-song precursor of hits before the main course. Following a stirring Mumford & Sons precursor set, Larry Mullen, Jr. appeared alone onstage, sitting at his kit on the tree-shaped B-stage and beginning the militant, frenetic beat intro of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. And while Mullen’s framework of the legendary track presented a looser design, the rest of the band filed in with a sense of dutiful intent to their movement, leaving the sprawling main stage entirely dark for the non-Joshua Tree early portion of the set.
“Sunday” led immediately into another catalogue cornerstone from 1983’s War, “New Year’s Day,” Bono’s voice still within reach of the soaring emotives of his youth despite turning 57 this week. He then declared himself “strangely at home in this concrete temple,” before “A Sort of Homecoming” from 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, the first time the band has played the song in full on U.S. shores in 30 years.
The Edge was ablaze with enthusiasm, animatedly bounding around the stage throughout the two-plus hour runtime. The perfection of his tone in the “If I could, you know I would” transition of “Bad” was the sweetest leap of passionate nuance. The enormous singalong “Pride (In the Name of Love)” followed, a perfect precursor to what was to come. This one song broke the band through into Top 40 radio, MTV and beyond so long ago. It propelled them into the enormity of arena stardom and set the stage for their biggest breakthrough, which would come two years later with The Joshua Tree.
From the start, the universal singalong was immediate and unrelenting, a clear indication that the baby boomer-skewing audience was entirely on board. The crowd was thick with superfans – all around me were swaying, arms-high & closed-eye displays of decades-deep recollection, reconnection, celebration, inspiration, unfolding all around me. Music lovers, from the time of true obsession. From when the album cover was a supplemental flavor to the music itself, a point of forensic focus in tandem to the listening experience. When every note was a testament to the gospel being spoken directly to you – or so it seemed.
As the synth intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name” accompanied the band moving to the main stage, the 8k screens came alive with a blood red sunset, silhouetting the band in an instantly recognizable image. It was a perfect remake of the original Joshua Tree tour opener three decades ago, a clear sign of forensic attention to detail on a retrospective done so thoroughly right.
U2 then performed The Joshua Tree front to back, in sequential order, with the crowd roaring along through openers “Streets” and its companion track “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Without the diminishing ceremonial padding of introduction, the band delivered a slower, beautifully overdue first-time-ever live debut of “Red Hill Mining Town,” and a harmonica-throwdown first run through the galloping ebullience of “Trip Through Your Wires” in three decades.
A vintage satirical wall-building film clip, directly referencing Trump, prefaced a beautifully elevating “Exit”. This was the first onstage unveiling of the rhythmically delicious rising sound since 1989, a reclamation after actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered and her killer referenced the song for inspiration. Bono prowled the stage in his old shamanic cowboy hat, Corbijn’s black-and-white desert backdrop interspersed with hauntingly psychedelic live footage of the band.
Time for a breath and a scream before Seattle, and one fan from 1,200 miles away, were floored by the final taste of this perfectly revitalized retrospective.
“Where is Eddie Vedder?” asked Bono, a verse & chorus into the album’s final song, the gorgeously soulful hymnal of “Mothers of the Disappeared”. “The spirit of Seattle, the spirit of Chicago. Spirit of America.” Eddie appeared, giving his adulatory introducer a lengthy hug before stepping to the mic. I’d never given much thought to this beautiful album closer in album context, having generally been spent by then from the previous 46 minutes of the record. But suddenly I was singing my heart out alongside tens of thousands of ecstatic souls:
Night hangs like a prisoner
Stretched over black and blue
Hear their heartbeats
We hear their heartbeats.
In the trees, our sons stand naked
Through the walls our daughters cry
See their tears in the rainfall
Mumford & Sons had taken the stage as well through Vedder’s verse, accompanying the rest of us for a full half-minute of impassioned “whoaaooohhh” call-and-repeats, standing in unison before a video backdrop of women holding candles to honor the young Chilean men murdered by Augusto Pinochet.
This transcendently lovely moment ended the first set, tremendous new life and relevance breathed into a call to passion three decades aged. The encore break was a sea of lights and ecstatic cheers, undying until the band returned a few minutes later. New energy arrived by the one-two punch of encore shots “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation”. Achtung Baby deep cut “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” followed, repackaged as a feminist anthem complete with a video backdrop precursor banner of “HERSTORY”. Accompanying were images of women who have made an impact on the world: Angela Davis. Rosa Parks. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Connie Mudenda. Alica Walker. Emma Gold. Maya Angelou. Patti Smith. Poly Styrene. Malala Yousafzai. The names continued without repetition, their faces a reminder of humanity behind the movement for equality and basic rights.
Following the track, Bono made a passionate case for activism, giving nod to the Gates’ in the process. “Next to my bandmates and my wife Ali, nobody has inspired and encouraged me more than Bill and Melinda Gates. It’s sometimes luminous figures that light the way, but movements can also light the way.” He closed the statement with a powerfully simple observation: “The government should fear its citizens, not the other way around.” The entire stadium roared in approval.
The emotional frequency on the floor was one of catharsis, of celebration, of digging up a time capsule containing the heartfires that propelled these baby boomers down whatever paths led them to this night, decades later. U2 ended the exhilarating night of retrospectives with a leap forward – or had intended to, anyway. The band returned to the B-stage, stood in a tight circle and delivered the heart-soaring, piano-driven new song “The Little Things That Give You Away.” But as the band was preparing to depart, Bono corralled them back. “One more for the people who traveled all the way here,” said Bono. “Let’s get back to where we started.”
Then they launched into an enormous rendition of “I Will Follow,” leaving tens of thousands singing the chorus in rapid-fire cadence to close out the night.
The spirit of The Joshua Tree is a disarmingly fitting skin on our current existence, delivering a rejuvenated purpose and message in an entirely new, yet eerily resonant, cultural landscape. And while the melodramatic depth of our currently exploding political system and sociopolitical divisions lent a poignancy to the depth of the experience, a thick current of celebration and centering intent continually rippled through the largely middle-aged audience. For these 70,000-plus people, it was church.
U2 CenturyLink Field Setlist:
1. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
2. “New Year’s Day”
3. A Sort of Homecoming”
5. “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
6. “Where the Streets Have No Name”
7. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
8. “With or Without You”
9. “Bullet the Blue Sky”
10. “Running to Stand Still”
11. “Red Hill Mining Town”
12. “In God’s Country”
13. “Trip Through Your Wires”
14. “One Tree Hill”
16. “Mothers of the Disappeared” (with Eddie Vedder and Mumford & Sons)
17. “Beautiful Day”
19. “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
21. “Miss Sarajevo”
22. “The Little Things That Give You Away”
23. “I Will Follow”