The wife and I went to see U2 at US Bank Stadium (home to Superbowl 52 in 5 months) last night on their current tour, the 30th anniversary of their classic album The Joshua Tree. Although I was a huge fan of the band in the 80s and 90s, I’ve found them producing mostly uninteresting work in the 21st century.
The last time was saw them live was on their 360 tour at Soldier Field in Chicago, 2009, a show that I was not too thrilled by, and I recall trying to leave the stadium in order to get to the underground parking was a complete nightmare. I didn’t think I would ever go to another U2 show – especially given that I’ve become less interested in live performances, and the fact that the ticket selling outlets have been allowed to become legal scalpers, and do absolutely nothing to prevent scalping by predatory ticket buyers.
But when I heard this tour was going to revisit an iconic album, I was interested – but wary too. Was Bono going to spend the night “reinterpreting” the album through new arrangements and bury that album’s political texture under a barrage of newly relevant commentary? Hard to say, but I was willing to roll the dice to get a final chance to hear the songs live again.
The surprising support for this act was Beck, and true to the theme of the show, his set was mostly a highlight reel. We were directly opposite the stage, but US Bank Stadium is huge, so the performers were about the size of a grain of rice – fortunately, there was a phenomenal projection to the right of stage that was super high definition, allowing a huge, extremely clear image that looked about 30 feet tall.
I’ve liked Beck just fine over the years without ever actually becoming a fan, and I thought last night’s performance was mostly just okay – but a lot of that was due to the sound quality. This was the first time I’d been in the stadium since the Chelsea v Inter game in August 2016, and my first time for a concert, and it’s clear that while the stadium is great for the purpose it was designed for (it’s the home stadium of NFL team the Minnesota Vikings), the acoustics leave a lot to be desired. Most of Beck’s lyrics were just too indistinct and swamped by the music, which just sounded like an inadequate car stereo turned up to 11. He played most of his big singles of the 90s and early 2000s (the setlist is here), including my personal favourite, Lost Cause, and a great song I’d never heard before. Turns out it’s called Wave and I’ll look for it later today. Prior to that, he performed a cover of local (and worldwide) musical legend Prince’s Raspberry Beret, which, while the intent was sweet, seemed half hearted.
After almost an hour after Beck’s set finished, U2 took the stage and immediately launched into their own, with no introduction. After a couple of songs, it was immediately clear they had come to play The Joshua Tree the way the fans wanted to hear it, and they all sounded terrific. Bono’s voice these days is strangely higher pitched when he talks, and there’s less of the raw power of his youth, but last night, he especially seemed energized by performing these songs, and he sounded mostly terrific throughout all of the songs, very reminiscent of the live performances I’ve watched in the past. He remains as animated as ever on stage, and sure, it’s unfair to compare a band like U2 to most contemporary bands, but these days there are so few front men that possess the kind of personality, magnetism, and drive that Bono still seems to have in reserve. Last night he was nothing short of fantastic – he might not have the kind of unlimited physical energy, but what he does have, he uses it tactically. How can I get all of that from a grain of rice sized human being? Well, that’s down to the other excellent feature of the night: the MASSIVE high definition screen they played in front of.
After a few opening songs performed on a small stage in the heart of the general admission audience, the band went back to the main stage, which had just looked like a giant piece of brown cardboard that earlier had the words of various civil rights activists projected across it before the performances.
But when U2 started to play, this blank screen was transformed to an incredible ultra high definition screen that, in the early part of the show showed clips of the American southwest, probably Joshua Tree National Park.
In the second half of the show, the screen was used to incredible effect with a wide variety of different images including a Salvation Army band during Red Hill Mining Town, a young woman hand painting an American flag on the side of a barn, and best of all when they performed Bullet The Blue Sky. At this point the screen showed the live performance, at times with heavily grainy filters, other times with crystal clear black and white video. It was the kind of music video that would have slotted well into their Achtung Baby period, and for me this was the performance of the night. Sure, they’ve played this song hundreds of times over the years, and I don’t know how many times alone on this particular tour, but last night it sounded raw and fresh and vibrant, and Bono totally sold it.
Of course, we’re living in a tumultuous, politically polarized time. When U2 rose to fame, the world was at the tail end of the Cold War, and the threat of global nuclear war was a common discussion point – as well as that, the UK was grossly divided under the Thatcher government, and back then U2’s political sound wasn’t innovative in and of itself, but their massive appeal and musical ability, coupled with Bono’s growing rep as a hugely intense, articulate front man set them apart from the other huge acts at the time. These days, the kind of political environment that saw U2 thrive has come around again, and The Joshua Tree feels almost as relevant as it did 30 years ago.
Bono wisely let the politics of the lyrics speak for themselves, and the songs sounded terrific – familiar, yet also renewed for the times. It wasn’t until the encore set, and the performance of Ultraviolet that the show’s only overtly political moment happened, when Bono extolled the virtues of women and the need for greater gender equality. As the father of a young woman just venturing out into the world, and the husband of a strong woman who has made a place in the world through her own intelligence and character, it’s a message I will get behind in principle. As the song moved towards its climax, the screen behind showed a succession of images of the most visible of influential women of the last two hundred years, crossing a variety of race. It was a part of the show that would leave a bitter taste in the only the mouths of those bitter themselves, but it was wholly appropriate for these times, and for this band. In many ways, this was as much the return of the old U2 as much as the playing of The Joshua Tree was.
The only negative thing I have to say is that when the band returned for the encore set, the songs felt tacked on – unnecessary and, if I’m being honest, not performed all that well. While it was in keeping with the “greatest hits” theme of the night, this closing set felt a little uncommitted, and the performance of One , one of my favourite songs, was mostly ruined by a sloppy arrangement and rushed vocals.
All in all, an absolutely terrific performance of The Joshua tree, and as I tweeted after getting home just after midnight, it reminded me of why I loved U2 so much back in the day.
© Andrew Hope, 2017