Classic Rock

U2 Brought The Joshua Tree Back to the Desert

U2 played at University of Phoenix Stadium on September 19, 2017.
U2 played at University of Phoenix Stadium on September 19, 2017. Leavitt Wells
Thirty years ago, U2 began a tour to support their fifth album, The Joshua Tree, with a series of concerts at Arizona State University's Activity Center in Tempe.

So much has changed in the three decades since that legendary show on April 2, 1987. The campus venue where they played now bears the name of a financial services institution known for devious practices. And the Irish activist rock quartet can now fill a football stadium named after a for-profit college that's used questionable recruitment procedures.

During the band's celebration of that iconic album at Glendale's University of Phoenix Stadium on September 19, Bono put it perfectly: Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed.

Despite its age, The Joshua Tree feels as relevant as ever. U2 played all of the record's 11 songs in album order and in their entirety during Tuesday night's show.

U2 continue to search for the soul of America — one they so vividly documented on Joshua Tree — because, according to their charismatic lead singer, this country “is a great idea that needs encouragement and protection sometimes.”

As it was in 1987, the United States is once again led by a man with a background in entertainment. The nation's embroiled in scandal. Refugees are denied entry in attempts to flee countries where American foreign policy has played out in the most atrocious ways. It was El Salvador then. It's Syria and other Muslim-majority countries now.

click to enlarge U2 played at University of Phoenix Stadium with a massive 8K screen behind them. - LEAVITT WELLS
U2 played at University of Phoenix Stadium with a massive 8K screen behind them.
Leavitt Wells
The concert didn't begin with The Joshua Tree. A crawl of verse and prose by Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Arizona's inaugural Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos scrolled over a massive screen. The beautiful, descriptive words, expressing the duality of a great nation that could oppress the weak at one moment and uplift them the next, connect to the themes of the record.

Then, drummer Larry Mullen took the stage and played the familiar snare introduction to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from the band's 1983 album War. When Bono yelped the lyric “fact is fiction and TV reality,” it was clear he had tapped into American issues of that era — and this one.

The music and images showcased a world described in the work of Jack Kerouac and Sam Shepard. Bono inserted the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” into the band's Unforgettable Fire ballad “Bad."

Videos of hitchhikers and vagabonds were projected on a panoramic 8K resolution video screen when they launched into The Joshua Tree with "Where The Streets Have No Name." The visuals portrayed the United States as a diverse, sprawling, and mythical nation that could visually dwarf a band as powerful as the Irish rockers.

Those images turned haunting as Bono screamed “outside it’s America” during “Bullet The Blue Sky.” Footage by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn showed Americans of all creeds and colors through a black-and-white filter that echoed the work of photographer Robert Frank. These subjects stood in front of a painting of the American flag and put on the helmet that frequent U2 album cover subject Peter Rowan wore on The Best of 1980-1990 compilation. The message was less than subtle.

Performer-activist Bono can’t even say thank you in Spanish without someone thinking he's making a political statement. But there was barely a mention of our country’s current commander-in-chief or the controversies and politics that fill our state's headlines, just a clip of a 1950s television show with a similarly named character discussing his desire to build a wall before the band dove into a hallucinatory rendition of "Exit."

click to enlarge U2 performing The Joshua Tree in Glendale. - LEAVITT WELLS
U2 performing The Joshua Tree in Glendale.
Leavitt Wells
There were words about dreams and Dreamers, huddled masses, and how a city upon a hill should be a shining example to the world.

Corbijn's lovely and distracting images were a comforting departure from the images of our nation shown in the last few months. Instead of focusing on horror, white supremacy, and violence, the band centered on a message of unity and love.

They rode a fine line between inspiring and naive, but you would have been hard-pressed to find someone angrily walking out of the stadium into the starry September night.

This show lacked the bite of denouncing former Governor Evan Meacham’s repeal of the Martin Luther King Day holiday all those years ago, veering toward the personal instead of the outright political. But considering how legendary those Tempe concerts were, not acknowledging them felt like a missed opportunity.

As powerful as side two of The Joshua Tree is, the audience sat down to recover from side one’s rousing start. Playing the entire album served as a reminder that “Trip Through Your Wires” is an electrifying deep cut. It was a highlight for fans who celebrate albums, not singles.

As The Joshua Tree ended, U2 launched into an encore of anthems, but the night’s most powerful moment did not come from something Bono said or The Edge played on his guitar.

During their performance of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” the screen that had loomed large throughout the evening showed the faces of women that had changed the course of history, everyone from Sojourner Truth, former First Lady Michelle Obama, musician and actress Grace Jones, punk rocker Poly Styrene, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former Senator Gabrielle Giffords. Women in the audience were visibly moved by the music and the montage.

It was a disarming statement from four men who play music — and still want to change the world.

click to enlarge U2 played at University of Phoenix Stadium on September 19, 2017. - LEAVITT WELLS
U2 played at University of Phoenix Stadium on September 19, 2017.
Leavitt Wells
"Sunday Bloody Sunday"
"New Year’s Day"
"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"
"Beautiful Day"
"You’re The Best Thing About Me"
"Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"

Critic's Notebook
What: U2's The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 at University of Phoenix Stadium
The Crowd: Baby-boomers and their spawn
Random Notebook Dump: The crowd sang “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” this evening not to assist Bono but to become part of the legion of the furious and faithful, to keep alive the promise of America that many have forgotten. He wanted to keep us a nation that is tolerant and faithful.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil