THEY’VE GOT A PLATFORM AND THEY’RE GONNA USE IT: U2 & the “Joshua Tree” Tour 2017

Live at the delightfully-named Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on June 14, the Irish boys were back in town, along with (cough) astutely-selected opening act One Republic. The show started in the rain, but by the end, it was, indeed, a beautiful day.

BY STEVE KLINGE

Ruminations on U2 in Tampa

The Occasion.
U2 seems to have been in retreat since the public relations fiasco of Songs of Innocence (not every iTunes user wanted an unsolicited download of a mediocre album). The promised partner set, Songs of Experience, has yet to appear, the band claiming that they’re reassessing its relevance in the era of Brexit and Trump, but they have chosen to reclaim their fanbase by commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of their fifth album, The Joshua Tree. Smart move: It’s the Irish band’s most overtly American album, and the one that sank deepest into the hearts of the boomers that would pay $100 or more to sit or stand outdoors.

The Venue.
Raymond James Stadium is the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s a big bowl of an open-air stadium that holds over 60,000 people, with GA standing on the field, sold out for a mostly white, mostly 40 and over audience (although I sat in front of a couple Asian children who seemed to know all the words, and I could see a mini-United Nations of flags waving through the crowd). It was a rainy Wednesday, a gray daylight as patrons in ponchos filled the stadium during One Republic’s opening set of radio-friendly pop-rock. Baseball-capped singer Ryan Tedder bounced around the massive stage, occasionally pounding some chords on a tarp-covered upright piano while most of the other bandmembers played from within pop-up tents or under canopies. The ginormous screen behind the stage—200 by 45 foot—displayed live shots of the band, but the images were out of sync with the sound system enough to be distracting. Tedder made it clear that the band was not One Direction, did a passable cover of “Wonderful World,” and led fans through hits such as “Counting Stars.” (I’d have preferred One Direction.)

Poetry and the Weather.
During the hour between sets, thoughtful and provocative poems by Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Naomi Shihab Nye, Yusef Komunyakaa, Elizabeth Alexander, and others scrolled on the screen; it was a nice blend of artful social consciousness for those not too busy swilling $12 light beers. The rain waned to a drizzle, then stopped; the sun came out; and, before sunset, a full double-rainbow appeared above the stadium. Oh my god, what did it mean? Maybe an omen: it could turn into a beautiful day just for U2.

The Show Begins.
As 9 p.m. neared, the lights dimmed, and the p.a. played The Waterboys’ great “The Whole of the Moon.” Then, a spotlight shined on drummer Larry Mullen at the end of the runway stage, shaped as a shadow of the Joshua tree image on the screen, and extending onto the floor. One by one the rest of the quartet gathered for “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Playing at a remove from the stage and in a relatively tight circle, the band conveyed an intimacy even in the huge space, and they stayed there for the next three songs: a rousing “New Year’s Day,” a steadily pulsing  “Bad” (which incorporated a few lines from Paul Simon’s “America”), and an emphatic “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (while a portion of the text of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech scrolled on the screen).

First Impressions.
The Edge is amazing. Impassive in his knit cap in the Florida humidity, he casually reels off those iconic, crystalline lines with the ringing, effects-laden tones. They sounded great coursing through the night, and there’s a stirring power in seeing all that sound emanating from that singular guitar. Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton provide the bedrock, leaving lots of space for the Edge, and he fills it with casual brilliance. That moment in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” when he shifts to serrated chords still thrills.

Bono 1: The Cheerleader.
The 57-year old’s voice is slightly huskier than in his youth, but it’s still strong and got stronger as the night wore one. I could do without his exhortations for crowd participation (Bono sez: Wave your arms. Bono sez: Clap your hands. Bono sez: Light up your cellphones. And tens of thousands obey). But those self-aggrandizing gestures were minimal (and less obtrusive than the tendency of folks to take cellphone pictures of the video screen of the band).

The Joshua Tree.
The band ascended to the main stage to begin their in-sequence performance of The Joshua Tree, and each song had its own video component, mostly short high-def films by longtime collaborator Anton Corbijn: a spacious desert landscape, a woman hastily painting a US flag on the side of a shed, stoic people donning army helmets, a seemingly endless road (for, of course, “Where the Streets Have No Name”), occasionally a stark red screen or live shots of the band playing. Sometimes the video was so beautiful and huge that it threatened to overshadow the small humans performing in front of it. Knowing what song would come next—the bane of these full-album setlists—minimized the suspense, and the record front-loads its hits: the opening trio of “Streets,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You” could be a triumphant encore in other contexts. But the arrangements stressed the variety: “Bullet the Blue Sky” was stark and metallic, with a screeching Edge solo; the rarely performed “Trip Through Your Wires” emphasized its warped blues roots, complete with Bono harmonica solo. “Red Hill Mining Town”—never performed live before this tour— was synced to video of a Salvation Army band and to tapes of horns. Introducing album side two, Bono noted, “We’re discovering some of these songs. You’ve lived with them more than we have.”

America.
Although the album was recorded in Ireland, it’s U2’s most American work, and Bono interjected comments about the American dream, about diversity and inclusivity, about the hope of Irish immigrants. He dedicated a lovely version of “One Tree Hill” to the memories of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shootings, which happened a year previously in Orlando. The Joshua Tree was born of the Reagan-Thatcher era, and songs like “Mothers of the Disappeared” seem timely now; sure, the show was an exercise in nostalgia, but the album sounded relevant, sometimes implicitly (in its questioning of American dreams and failures) and explicitly (in Bono’s comments and in the images on the screen). During a sprawling, abstract version of “Exit,” they played a clip from a black and white fifties western called Trackdown in which a character named Trump wants to save a town by building a wall but gets shouted down by cries of “You’re a liar, Trump!” Within the song—the most theatrical of the night—Bono also quoted a few prescient lines from Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic novel Wise Blood: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going was never there. Where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”

Bono 2: The Proselytizer
Yes, Bono is earnest, moralistic, preachy: He has a platform and he’s going to use it. I saw U2 in a college auditorium in England in January 1981 a few months after Boy came out, and Bono had a cockiness about him even then: It’s a rock and roll convention. But he’s self-aware, and in Tampa he kept his set speeches brief, advocating “people have the power” politics and basic empathy. He declared early on that the country’s ideals of inclusivity should appeal to everyone, whether on the right, the left or in the center: He didn’t want to alienate. Sure, it was self-indulgent when he sang while shining a handheld camera at his own face, and the frequent sweeping generalizations about the American mythos became redundant, but the general sense of idealism and community and hope were uplifting. It’s artifice and propaganda, but it’s still inspiring; it’s good to be reminded of our potential and our need for empathy, and the widescreen nature of the messages fit the music (and the literal wide screen).

The Third Act.
After a short break, the band returned for “Miss Syria (Sarajevo),” a version of “Miss Sarajevo” from the U2/Eno Passengers project. Revamped to focus on the Syrian refugee crisis (but still with a taped operatic vocal), it was accompanied by a film showing the devastating conditions of the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. A huge sheet with a photo of a Syrian refugee passed, hand to hand, around the stadium (a cool moment, but a little too close in method to Triumph of the Will-like rabblerousing). Next came “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” from Achtung Baby (the even-better successor to The Joshua Tree). They dedicated the song to their mothers and wives and the other women in their lives, and the screen displayed a roll-call of heroines, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sojourner Truth to Gloria Steinem and Michelle Obama to Pussy Riot and Patti Smith. Then came the overt crowd-pleasers: the anthemic “One,” the joyful “Beautiful Day,” the powerful “Elevation,” the resolute “Vertigo.” All highlights, but especially the straight-up rock and roll of “Elevation,” which featured some gonzo Edge guitar (and some pogoing as he played). The two-hour show omitted lots of hits to make way for all of The Joshua Tree, but that’s inevitable.

U2 can, indeed, still make you believe that it can be a beautiful day.

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Go to the BLURT Facebook page to view videos that publisher Stephen Judge filmed while touring Dublin on the day marking the 30th anniversary of the release of The Joshua Tree. Elsewhere on this site you can find a selection of archival content related to U2 since we debuted in 2008 – used the search box on the right.

 

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