Amidst massive popularity, U2 has always been a misunderstood band. From theatrical bombast to musical pivots, the band has often followed its own muse as opposed to succumbing to critical constraints, but their artistry may get lost amidst the theatrics. Even now, one may wonder why 30-years later, a band that does not want to be a nostalgic act is revisiting The Joshua Tree. Maybe 2017, a remarkable time of political and social divisiveness, is the right time to return to an album that looked to understand the contradictions of America.
The show at CenturyLink Field Sunday night was part political rally, part church revival, and all dramatic, cinematic, performance art. The show started with drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. strolling down hundreds of feet (of a stage painted to look like THE Joshua Tree), to kick off the start of the show with the military rhythm of War’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” It was an instant pleaser, and had the crowd singing along to every word. This moment, like the entire show, was cinematic storytelling at its finest.
The band told their story via favorites from War and The Unforgettable Fire building up to an entire chronological set of their most popular effort on its 30th anniversary, The Joshua Tree.
First and foremost, what first appeared to be plywood turned out to be as close to an IMAX screen as some could imagine: hundreds of feet of high-def screen that revealed the fantastic new film of a desert-scape by Anton Corbijn (the artist behind the cover of the album) as commissioned by the band. It's truly not hyperbole to state that the screen was visually stunning and as epic as the band’s music.
I’ve always felt the band was misunderstood in that those who disliked the band didn’t understand why the band was... well, what they were; theater, as well as, rock, and art, and a vehicle for social change.
To me it was clear that they had made a choice early on to be more, to stretch the extremes of rock via Bono’s on-stage bravado, dramatic readings of lyrics, etc. Yet many missed the amazing art propelled through these recordings in the mid-to-late-'80s, shepherded by producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. If one was to focus on Bono’s theatrical presence without understanding why he chose to go that route, you might miss their soaring melodies, ambient soundscapes, ground-breaking guitar sounds, and a back beat from quite possibly the most underrated rhythm section in the history of rock.
Recorded after the band had toured extensively throughout the US in support of their previous release The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree was a reaction to a country (our country!) they were attempting to understand and reflect through music. Thirty years later, here in Seattle, Bono singing lines from Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” amidst The Unforgettable Fire’s “A Sort of Homecoming” set the table for what was to be a return to something older that felt new.
For me, the finest moments of this set were also my favorites from the album. The cutting bombast of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” the brooding slow burn of “With or Without You,” the melodic intensity of “In God’s Country,” but I also found myself lifted when the band was joined by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and opening act Mumford and Sons on the album’s finale, “Mothers of the Disappeared,” a song that smartly turns the political personal, revealing a message that feels as important today as it did 30-years ago.
It was my daughter, Violet, age 15, who I felt summed the show up best. “That was one epic song after another.”
Thirty years later, a 15-year-old was right.
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