A legendary band, touring on an anniversary of a landmark record, could raise either undeniable excitement or the sense of mercenary greed. U2, of any band now active on the planet, comes the closest to justifying the hype for a 30th anniversary tour of The Joshua Tree — a generation-defining record with songs that will be hummed and recognized for decades to come, and surely known long after the band is no longer active or perhaps even remembered.
With Joshua Tree comprising the meat of the show’s sandwich, the opening and closing sets were neatly divided — before Joshua Tree, and post-Joshua Tree. With the opening set, Larry Mullen, Jr. walked out unhurriedly onto a bare stage in the midst of the audience to take his place at the drum kit, where the quartet played four songs without video disruptions. With Mullen’s drumbeats sounding out righteous outrage, “New Year’s Day” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” came unmoored from their initial time and place in strife-ridden Ireland, to become cries against the carnage of 21st century violence, both at home and abroad. The weight of guns bore heavy on the night, with Bono pausing to note the shooting of Congressman Scalise and the ever-present threat of gun violence in America.
Four songs in, following the martial messaging of War and the redemptive American elegies of The Unforgettable Fire, the theme of the evening had been set: a reappraisal of America and classic idealized Americanness, emblematic in the song selection, the iconography, and Bono’s fervent appeals to the best nature of American politics, in front of an audience that included members of Congress and ambassadors. Bono even took brief digressions into Paul Simon’s “America” during the long outro to an eight-minute “Bad,” and quoted Leonard Bernstein’s “America” in a side moment.
With these thrilling but somber moments complete, the band took to the main stage to launch into The Joshua Tree proper, with the massive high-definition video screens showing iconic images of the American West, with “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You.”
At their best, the opening three singles from The Joshua Tree possess an inchoate yearning, a malleable universality that can be viewed as spiritual, romantic, sexual, or a striving for justice. Bono’s singing and lyrics are surely the most obvious piece of that, but they're by no means the full extent of the appeal. The Edge pioneered an arpeggiated guitar tone, amplified through the production techniques of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, that gave tremendous emotional depth to surprisingly simple playing. Bassist Adam Clayton lent a remarkable subtlety of playing on “With or Without You,” carrying the melody and allowing The Edge to focus on keening guitar textures. Elsewhere The Edge focused on piano, where he is a surpassingly effective player.
As the band worked through The Joshua Tree, Mullen’s martial drumming — so dominant on War — was muted, to burst forth in the fiery “Bullet the Blue Sky,” which put U2’s political sensibility back on center stage. “Bullet” was U2’s heavy metal moment, a clattering and demented blues with piledriving drums and its apocalyptic imagery of airplanes of guns and death — originally from the Reagan era, but always recontextualized into the current days’ atrocities.
With Bono a bit hoarse at times, he took slight breaks to allow the crowd to sing on his behalf, guzzling from water bottles proffered from his handlers, and then spritzing the fans around the stage like a priest with holy water. But just at the moments when it seemed that he was struggling with his vocals, he opened up his lungs and hit his higher register, and the years seemed to slip away. As a crooner, his phrasing was elegant and restrained on the addiction elegy “Running to Stand Still” and the somber “Red Hill Mining Town,” with The Edge on piano and recorded horns from a Salvation Army band.
With nearly 40 years of collaboration behind them, Bono and the band seemed periodically in bemused mode about the years that had come and gone. Bono ruminated about how the band was “finally getting to know” the second half of the Joshua Tree record — a suite of songs nearly the equal of Side 1, but with unusual pacing, dreamy textures, and opaque lyrics. “In God’s Country,” one of the finest songs in the U2 back catalogue, was driven by The Edge’s striking guitar. Bono mocked his own harmonica skills before a slightly ragged version of “Trip Through Your Wires.” As The Joshua Tree neared its conclusion, the tone of the show turned ominous. Following the brief snippet from a video from a 1950’s TV show called “Trackdown” with a con man named “Trump,” Bono emerged in the guise of an snake-oil peddler or itinerant minister for a dire and urgent performance of “Exit,” a piece the band hadn’t played for decades in concert. The somber closing “Mothers of the Disappeared,” initially for the victims of the Dirty War in Argentina, was recast for mothers of all those lost to guns or repression.
One of the most striking elements of the show was watching Bono cycle through his various personae — Ecumenical preacher. Rock and roll faith healer. Global do-gooder. Lusty old man. Warrior for justice. Wounded lover. Lecturer and priest. Bipartisan consensus builder. He inhabited and then discarded each of these tropes, sometimes holding onto one longer than another, but never more than a song or a between-song anecdote at a time.
With the closing of The Joshua Tree set, there was a sampling of late-model U2 stadium bangers. It’s easy to disparage late-period U2 as a set of middling albums, iPod commercials, and gimmicks, but it’s astonishing how well a piffle like “Elevation” conveys to a football stadium crowded with energized fans. Achtung Baby’s “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” was transformed from a gritty song of lust to a paean to women’s empowerment, complete with video profiles of inspirational women from around the globe, some universally renowned and others less so. “Vertigo” (another iPod commercial) was a dazzling multimedia showcase; “Beautiful Day” from All That You Can’t Leave Beyond was perhaps less successful. Records like Pop, Zooropa, No Line on the Horizon, and Songs of Innocence were omitted unceremoniously. The one ballad in the encore, “One,” was recast as an ode to fighting AIDS in Africa.
Every concert, even one as polished as U2’s, has its inexplicable moments. At Fedex Field, the hardest musical moment to explain was the Passengers song “Miss Sarajevo,” with the ghostly recorded vocal of Luciano Pavarotti dominating the performance while the video screens shared the stories of Syrian refugees. As a tribute to World Refugee Day, it made a degree of sense. But the true WTF moment came at very end of the finale: a man was invited up from the crowd to do handstands on the stage, to the band’s admiration. It was unexplained, it was weird, and it made for a puzzling closing to an exhilarating night.