CHICAGO — U2 doesn’t do nostalgia, or so the Irish juggernaut has claimed. So what’s this business of dusting off its biggest-selling album, The Joshua Tree, on its 30th anniversary?
There’s a massive box set and a stadium-size tour that arrived Saturday for the first of two sold-out concerts at Soldier Field. These are the typical gambits of a band running short on ideas and inspiration, but give them this — U2 rarely turns its shows into a mere jukebox of past accomplishments. The band revels in developing themes and putting new spins on even relatively recent songs. And so on Saturday, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. set their sights on making something old feel new again.
Turns out the songs don’t particularly sound like relics. The America the band was so simultaneously enamored with and disappointed by in 1987 seems to be an even more polarizing place these days, and the wide open spaces explored in the earnest anthems, torn ballads and guitar ballistics of the erratic but volatile Joshua Tree still have plenty of life in them.
Before the concert, heightened safety precautions were evident as security workers inspected vehicle trunks and scanned for explosives as concertgoers drove into Soldier Field parking garages.
As prelude to rolling out the album’s 11 songs in order, the band played four tracks from its early albums on a stark B stage. It was a refreshingly modest but potent display of the quartet blasting out prop-free rock ‘n’ roll. In these moments, the clear, hard lines articulated by the rhythm section — Mullen a rock on drums, Clayton dropping A-bombs on the bass — couldn’t be overestimated. Nor should the Edge’s innate ability to make his guitar sound like it comes equipped with its own fog machine, the notes covered in mist and reverb.
These were protest songs, but not in the traditional sense — they were filled with as much optimism as invective, hope tinged by struggle and stained by blood: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” in which Bono invoked the recent carnage in Manchester, London and “the streets of Chicago”; the people’s uprising of “New Year’s Day”; the pilgrim’s search in “Bad,” complete with a quote from Paul Simon’s “America”; and the Martin Luther King tribute “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which the singer dedicated to “those holding on and those letting go of the American dream.”
Big music with big ideas has been U2’s stock in trade for three-plus decades, and things did indeed go jumbo as the action moved to the main stage with a curving 200-by-45-foot screen. Anton Corbijn’s evocative images and films of the American West dwarfed and almost subsumed the band in much the same way that his “Joshua Tree” artwork created a visual counterpoint to the sound when the album was first released. At Soldier Field, America was presented as a land of infinite possibility, an endless desert highway spread out behind the band during “Where the Streets Have No Name.” The journey outlined on the album’s first few songs took on the dimensions of a spiritual quest — America as an idea as much as a place.
Bono later thanked America “for hundreds of years of refuge for the Irish,” and then acknowledged that “we could be thrown out of the country for bad harmonica playing.” The apology was necessary because the middling harp riffs in “Trip Through Your Wires” didn’t measure up in the home of the blues.
It underscored that the album’s second half has a few rough spots, and the pacing of the concert might have been improved had the band shuffled the placement of a few songs. There was no way to improve the one-two punch of “Bullet the Blue Sky” as the Edge’s guitar violence melted into the hushed junkie prayer “Running to Stand Still.” But “Exit” strained to make an impression as something more than a psychodrama that cops Patti Smith circa “Horses,” and served as a poor introduction for the mourning song “Mothers of the Disappeared.”
The encore juggled more outsized ideas, including a plea for women to transform the world, the notion that America remains the biggest and perhaps last hope for countless refugees, and a plea for citizens of all political persuasions to overcome their widening differences. “All are welcome here,” Bono repeated several times, as if opening a sanctuary instead of hosting a rock concert.
For many U2 fans, The Joshua Tree remains a refuge, a rite of passage, a place where serious themes could be explored in music that invited everyone to sing along. It fit with an era in which Live Aid and concerts benefiting Amnesty International were in vogue, and rock stars were cast, sometimes awkwardly, as do-gooders who wanted to save the world.
But it still held sway Saturday for different reasons. It remains alternately problematic and uplifting, ambitious and naïve, and sometimes undeniably moving. Most compelling was that U2 made it sound less like a finished work, a monument from a long-lost decade, than a series of songs still in search of answers. As Bono said, “We’re all trying to figure this out.”
A Rainy Night in Soho (Pogues song)/Sunday Bloody Sunday
New Year’s Day
Pride (In the Name of Love)
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)
Ultra Violet (Light My Way)
I Will Follow