THE JOSHUA TREE
Prior to recording The Joshua Tree, U2’s fifth album, released on March 9, 1987, the band’s rapidly-growing fan base afforded U2 opportunities to tour the world many times. After several tours of the United Kingdom, U2’s first (or second, depending on your source) American concert was at The Ritz in New York City on December 6, 1980. The band returned to New York less than a week later to perform an intentionally underpublicized concert at the tiny Mudd Club on December 11, 1980. The early American tours crisscrossed the states, returning to some cities on the same tours; this reporter saw U2 perform in New York City in March, May and November of 1981, for instance. These early tours saw the members of the Irish-born quartet—vocalist Bono, guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.—grow increasingly fascinated by the physical and social landscapes of America. The Joshua Tree was U2’s love letter to America.
In composing for what would become The Joshua Tree, U2 was influenced by American authors and by American and Irish roots music. This new direction reportedly originated when the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Mick Jagger played blues and country music for Bono in New York. Bono realized that since U2 started as a punk rock outfit, the band had no authentic musical tradition. This awakening was furthered as Bono met Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. Under Bono’s guidance, U2 began exploring how the band could interpret American roots music. With an intention to write more straight-forward songs, the new lyrics included socio-political commentary and spiritual imagery. The vast open space of America became the theme and the connective tissue. The images of both a physical and symbolic desert led to the spike-leafed evergreen Joshua tree, the largest of the yuccas, which grows only in the Mojave Desert.
Wikipedia notes that The Joshua Tree received critical acclaim, topped the charts in over 20 countries, and became the fastest-selling album in British history. It produced “With or Without You”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the first two of which became the group’s only number-one singles in the U.S. The album won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1988. The Joshua Tree is one of the world’s best-selling albums, with over 25 million copies sold. U2 was no longer performing in smaller venues in New York; on May 11-16, 1987, the Joshua Tree tour saw U2 headline five nights at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR
In 1987, The Joshua Tree was U2’s search for America while in America. Now, 30 years later, the members of U2 recognized that many of those same questions and ponderings were begging to be revisited in this new America. U2 set out for a stadium tour where the band would play the album in its entirety for the first time. From May until October 2017, the tour would span from North America to Europe and then back to North and South America.
The stage features a 7.6K video screen measuring 200 feet wide and 45 feet tall, with a silhouette of the Joshua tree from the album sleeve in the center. It is the largest and highest-resolution screen ever used on a concert tour. As the audience waits for U2, poems scroll on the video screen, including “The Border: A Double Sonnet” by Alberto Ríos, “Kaddish for Leonard Cohen” and “Ain’t You Scared of the Sacred” by George Elliott Clarke, “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman, “Ghazal for White Hen Pantry” by Jamila Woods, and works by Pedro Pietri and Lucille Clifton. Anton Corbijn, who photographed the album sleeve, provided films that would accompany the performances of the album’s songs.
Jutting from the larger stage into the audience, a smaller, lower stage was crafted in the shape of the plant’s shadow. This smaller stage has trap doors that open so that The Edge’s keyboard and Mullen’s drum kit could subtly appear and disappear as needed.
METLIFE STADIUM, JUNE 29
This was U2’s second night at MetLife Stadium. The Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon” blasting through the speakers indicated the show was about to begin. The video screen went dark. Curiously, the concert opened with the four musicians unceremoniously walking the long, descending catwalk of the Joshua tree’s “trunk” to the smaller shrub-shaped second stage surrounded by fans; bands usually wait until a strategic mid-point in a show to use a B stage, but this was where the band chose to launch its pre-Joshua Tree mini-set. “Our prayer this evening is that we have one of those epic nights that we all remember and hold on to,” said Bono. The two-hour performance began on this smaller stage with four of the band’s earliest and most iconic songs, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “New Year’s Day”, “Bad,” and “Pride (In the Name of Love),” played in the sequence in which they were released and each played much as the audience expected to hear them.
As the band sauntered back up the runway to the main stage, the video screen illuminated with the Joshua tree silhouette against a blood-red background. The main event, the 11 Joshua Tree tracks in sequence, began with more U2 signature songs, “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You.”
For The Joshua Tree portion of the show, the band performed on the main stage against a backdrop of visuals on the video screen. If the show was not already a spectacle, the realistic, seemingly three-dimensional visuals became intrinsic to the multi-media totality, immersing the audience deeper into The Joshua Tree. “Where the Streets Have No Name” was accompanied by a slow tracking shot of a desert highway, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with a forest of trees, “With or Without You” with images of Zabriskie Point, and “Trip Through Your Wires” showed The Edge’s wife, choreographer Morleigh Steinberg, dressed as a cowgirl while an American flag was painted on a wooden shack. Some of the videos were interludes that served as introductions of songs rather than backdrops; prior to “Exit,” a clip from the 1950s television series Trackdown was shown, in which a con man named Trump visits a western town and promises to build a wall around the citizens to ensure their safety. Every song had its calculated visual partner.
Like most concerts, U2’s set began and ended with better-known songs, either setting a frenzy of excitement or concluding with a memorable blast. The middle of U2’s set consisted of lesser-known songs, or what would have been known as the B-side of the album. These included songs never-before performed (“Red Hill Mining Town”) and rarely performed live (“In God’s Country”, “Mothers of the Disappeared”).
After the main set, U2 returned to the small stage for the encore of post-Joshua Tree songs, and Bono went full on with his social messages. The band began the encore with a stirring rendition of “Miss Sarajevo,” a song dramatizing the Bosnian War in 1995, but now repurposed to the civil unrest in Syria. On screen, amidst bleak images of urban destruction, a 15-year-old Syrian in a Jordanian refugee camp said, through subtitles, “I would love to go to America, because it’s a very beautiful country, and one can be happy there. It’s a civil country. It’s the land of dreams.”
“Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” became an ode to women, including visuals of many groundbreaking women in contemporary history.
The show closed with “One.” Prior to “One”, Bono promoted the ONE Campaign by discussing the fight against HIV/AIDS. As the word “one” appeared on the screen in many languages, Bono at length acknowledged many of his peers in the fight against HIV/AIDS, many of whom he said were in the audience. A quote from Wael Ghonim also was shown on the screen: “The power of the people is so much stronger than the people in power.” Introducing the theme of the song just before singing it, Bono said, “We don’t have to agree on everything if the one thing we agree on is important enough.”
Bono also addressed the immigration controversy without overtly naming a political figure or the travel ban that took effect that night in the United States. Bono noted that America is a country of immigrants. “This city, this country have given us Irish safety and sanctuary for hundreds of years,” Bono said. “We would like to say thank you.” Indeed, Bono thanked the audience “for letting us into your country.”
Bono also spoke of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in prayer form. “Dr. King, in a time of terror, keep us tolerant. In a time of fear, keep us faithful,” Bono said.
Bono also urged members of the American media to remain “vigilant.” “I would like to thank all of those that keep us vigilant, like journalists, in this country,” Bono said.
Throughout the concert, the visuals, the underlying commentary and the musical performance were so interweaved that they were futile to fracture into compartments. The acoustical challenges of performing amidst outdoor elements perhaps hindered Bono’s ability to make his singing sound unique, but the force and integrity of his delivery rallied even the fans dancing at their seats more than a half-mile away. The Edge’s guitar work was smooth yet biting, and the rhythm section powered the songs admirably. In the end, this U2 concert was not about how cleverly the quartet reworked or updated the original compositions, but how effectively they masterminded a spectacle for thousands of fans to enjoy. This tour may have been the spectacle of spectacles for the rock history books.
- “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
- “New Year’s Day”
- “Bad” (with a snippet of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”)
- “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”
The Joshua Tree
- “Where The Streets Have No Name”
- “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
- “With Or Without You”
- “Bullet The Blue Sky”
- “Running To Stand Still”
- “Red Hill Mining Town”
- “In God’s Country”
- “Trip Through Your Wires”
- “One Tree Hill”
- “Mothers Of The Disappeared”
- “Miss Sarajevo” (Passengers cover)
- “Beautiful Day” (with a snippet of Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power”)
- “Vertigo” (with a snippet of Patti Smith’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll N—-r”)
- “Mysterious Ways”
- “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”