When U2 announced a stadium headlining tour in support of the 30th anniversary of its landmark album The Joshua Tree, reactions among critics and fans alike were split. Some accused the band of cashing in on the legacy of its most acclaimed legacy, while others were thrilled at the prospect of seeing the album live for the first time.
The Joshua Tree, when it was released in 1987 marked the critical and commercial apex for a band that was formerly a humble rock outfit from Dublin. The anthems like New Year’s Day, first seen on the divisive album War, had been fine tuned into a album full of grandiose vision and yearning for an authentic America. Obvious hits like With or Without You were buffered with live favorites, including Bullet the Blue Sky.
During the tour for the album, U2 played stadiums for the first time, playing against a sparsely furnished stage that accentuated the band in silhouette. For a group that had finally achieved mega-stardom, there was a slight sense that they were hesitant to fully embrace the magnitude of what had been accomplished.
Despite U2’s foray into electronic music, first seen on Achtung Baby, and later executed in disastrous fashion on the forgettable album Pop, the band’s heartbeat remained the soaring virtuosity of The Joshua Tree’s open-minded sense of adventure. In the late 1990’s, when the band’s experimental phase had come to a long, slow conclusion, the band reached back, and sought to re-discover the magic of that fateful album.
In returning to Chicago’s Soldier Field to perform the album, U2 made good on the promise of the album, delivering both spectacle and leaving the audience wanting more. Opening with a thrilling rendition of Sunday Bloody Sunday, Larry Mullen’s crisp drums and Bono’s aching vocals set the stage for a night of epic music, with slight political undertones. When reliving the song’s namesake violence, Bono added mentions to recent tragedies in Kabul and Manchester, lending a current voice to the song’s decades old lament.
Aided by Edge’s synthesizer playing, the band dusted off A Sort of Homecoming, the band’s lead track off the formative album The Unforgettable Fire. Bono’s aching vocals on the deep cut captivated longtime fans, and set the stage for the nostalgia trip of running through The Joshua Tree.
Flanked by gorgeous 4K screens that spanned the length of Soldier Field’s endz one, U2 took attendees on a visual trip of the album’s themes, including a beautifully desolate landscape during Where the Streets Have No Name, and a blood red moon for One Tree Hill.
The album itself showed the broad range of the band’s sonic exploration of America and reminded the crowd of the band’s ongoing search for meaning among loss. The reintroduction of songs like Exit allowed the band to probe the darkness of the American dream and examine what it means to face that same vision, 30 years and millions of dollars later.
If the show had a weakness, it was the return to Bono’s current political messaging, in the form of tired encore songs including Miss Sarajevo, Ultraviolet and One. As the first section of the concert evoked the brilliance of U2’s early soul searching rock, the latter portion reminded the audience of the band’s clear complacency in recent years and the abandonment of these ideals.
Despite some missteps, the band succeeded in making a show that spoke to decades old questions and themes seem relevant and thrilling. U2 may never return to the urgency of the legendary concert film Under a Blood Red Sky, but it proved that its founding ideals and passion are not irrelevant more than 30 years later.