The raison d’être for U2’s latest massive-scale summer stadium tour was ostensibly to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their best album, “The Joshua Tree.” That’s it. Easy peasy. For once, it looked as if the Irish rock quartet was finally willing to let fans enjoy a straight shot of nostalgia without a new album or some other kind of fresh twist, just like the Stones, McCartney and so many others have done in recent years.
At its first of two concerts at Soldier Field on Saturday, though — sold-out shows that drew Minnesotans in droves, despite rumors of a pending Minneapolis date — U2 failed miserably at that simple task of keeping it simple. But it triumphed by nearly every other standard.
All Bono had to do was let the selfie-taking revelers and hand-holding Gen X couples enjoy “With or Without You” without fussing over all the woes in the world. Wouldn’t you know it, though, Johnny Do-Gooder found a way to tie his band’s old material to current headlines, and spark timeless soul-searching questions in the songs.
The singer’s modern take on the old songs started up even during the older, pre-“Joshua Tree” songs they played at the start of the show on a small, stark thrust stage.
Bono mentioned terrorist attacks in England and gun violence in Chicago in the opener “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and then he set up the show’s thematic exploration of American idealism in “Bad,” infusing it with snippets of Paul Simon’s “America.” As the 70,000 fans sang in unison to “Pride (In the Name of Love),” he rededicated the Martin Luther King Jr. tribute to “those who are still holding onto the American dream, and those who are letting it go.”
Reissued as an expanded boxed-set just last week, “The Joshua Tree” itself was partly a love letter and epitaph to the drying-up American landscape the band saw circa 1987. On Saturday, though, Bono actually emphasized the good — some might say “great” — still left in America, pitching it as a fertile territory for freedom and brotherly love.
As the four band members walked from the small stage to the big stage to kick off the album portion of the concert, the droning intro of “Where the Streets Have No Name” started up in unison to a wow-inducing, football-field-sized wraparound video-screen showing scenes of a drive down a lost-highway in the desert.
Those video images — filmed by the band’s longtime collaborator Anton Corbijn — were as integral as Bono’s comments in making fans rethink the “Joshua Tree” material. After more footage celebrating the American landscape showed through “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for” and “With or Without You,” the scenery turned grittier and more provocative in the “Bullet the Blue Sky,” as Americans of varying age and race were seen donning war helmets and standing in front of a painted U.S. flag.
Bono never mentioned President Trump, and he twice made a point of saying, “All are welcome here, left or right.” He even was careful not to sound preachy as he touched on some of the hallmark themes of the Trump presidency so far, including a nod to immigration in “Trip Through Your Wires.”
“Thank you for providing hundreds of years of safety and refuge for the Irish,” he said, and then quipped as he picked up a mouth harp, “Now we could be deported for bad harmonica playing.”
Bono and his bandmates did trip up a bit during “Trip Through Your Wires” as well as “In God’s Country,” each from “The Joshua Tree’s” Side 2 — which U2 hadn’t touched in concert for two decades. However, the old cronies effectively revived “Running to Stand Still” and “Red Hill Mining Town,” reworking each of them into elegant showpieces with the Edge mostly sticking to piano in them.
Sounding as mad-wizard-like as ever, the beanie-capped guitarist went back to firing on all six strings by the time they got to “Exit,” which bassist Adam Clayton and especially drummer Larry Mullen Jr. also helped make a frantic highlight of the set.
The modern thematic ties didn’t stop once “The Joshua Tree” ended and the set list also turned more current — though the newest songs of the night were still “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation,” both released in 2000.
Bono dedicated the slow-bobbing 1991 nugget “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” to “women who have resisted and persisted,” accompanied by video images of everyone from Rosa Parks and Emma Goldman to Chicago’s own Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. He kicked off the war-scarred “Miss Sarajevo” with video of a 15-year-old refugee girl in Syria, who tearfully told the camera, “I would love to go to America because it’s a beautiful country.”
Before ending the night by ripping through their very first single “I Will Follow,” Bono took a moment to emphasize how beautiful he, too, thinks America is, which was his set-up to the 1991 anthem “One.” He mentioned the country’s support — with vital help from former President George W. Bush — - in alleviating the AIDS crisis in Africa.
“Eighteen million people are alive now thanks to U.S. taxpayers,” he said. It sure beat hearing the standard, “Thank you, Chicago!” at the end of the night.
Take away the topical twists and modern turns, Saturday’s concert still stood out as one of the most creative and satisfying stadium concerts of all time. Here’s hoping fan websites are correct in hinting the band might play another Minneapolis date at U.S. Bank Stadium in early September, part of an unannounced second leg of the tour.
If that happens, don’t bother brushing up on “The Joshua Tree” in the interim; the band has already worked up quite a refresher on the album.
Here's the set list from Saturday night's Soldier Field show:
- 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
- Beautiful Day
- Miss Sarajevo
- Ultra Violet (Light My Way)
- I Will Follow