THE JOSHUA TREE TOUR 2017 PASADENA, CALIFORNIA (MAY 20, 2017)

It’s tempting to credit The Joshua Tree 2017 tour with bringing The Joshua Tree album full circle. The first Pasadena Rose Bowl concert May 20th was one of U2’s best ever, a direct conduit to my first live U2 experience, The Joshua Tree, Tempe, Arizona, April 2, 1987. The same hopefulness, warmth, and communal celebration. The power, the passion, the sound; the words, the vision, the voice.

But the strength of JT2017 is not simply nostalgia. It’s the upshot of expansion and growth, a path spiraling upward through time. Circular movement to the fourth dimension. A t-shirt popular at JT merchandise stalls says succinctly: I want to run 1987—on the front; I want to hide 2017—on the back. The idealism and energy of a young band balanced against the mature, conflicted realism, and updated relevance of its present.

The simplicity of JT2017’s staging captures The Joshua Tree’s intensely American vibe. The centerpiece, a giant Joshua tree, rises to the right, above a lofty LED screen brimming with stunning visuals. A smaller stage, impressed with a mirror image of the tree, projects into the audience from a slanted walkway.

In liner notes to the 2007 Joshua Tree  re-issue, Bono writes that inspiration for the album came from “two Americas, the mythic and the real America—harsh reality alongside the dream. It was prosperous and it was parched and I began to see this era as a spiritual drought. I started thinking about the desert and what came together was quite a clear picture of where I was at personally—a little off-kilter in my emotional life but very much waking up as a writer and as a commentator on what I saw around me, my love of America and my fear of what America could become.” (Prophetic words given the negativity, fear-mongering, and incompetence of America’s current administration.)

Prior to both U2 and The Lumineers—a winning opener—poetry scrolls up the tan-colored, two hundred by forty-five foot screen, the largest high-resolution LED video equipment ever used on a tour. If you’re paying attention, the intimacy and sense of place this streaming poetry builds is both novel and unprecedented, even for a U2 show. I recognized Carl Sandburg’s Prairie and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass right off. Other pieces remain relatively obscure—Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s The World is a Beautiful Place, Robert Pinsky’s An Explanation of America, Alberto Rio’s The Border: A Double Sonnet; Elizabeth Alexander’s Preliminary Sketches of Philadelphia and Praise Song for the Dead; William Matthew’s Why We are Truly a Nation, and Pedro Pietri’s Puerto Rican Obituary.

The Rose Bowl hunkers below some dusty Southern California mountains and is quite spacious in its interior. Our seats, in line with the smaller stage, on the west side—Adam’s—were at the foot of the second tier, next to an exit. At one point, the wide aisle in front, bordered opposite by seating for the disabled, collected a security huddle that suddenly swept past us. Neighborly opinion fingered Edge in its midst. He’d “turned to wave” before heading back down to the pitch. (Other fans claimed an Edge clone, and we subsequently learned that a faux Bono had posed for selfies elsewhere in the stadium.) Genuine celebs in attendance included Katie Holmes with her daughter Suri, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Alicia Keys with her son, Egypt.

The opening set, comprised of Sunday Bloody Sunday,  New Year’s Day, A Sort of Homecoming, and Pride—which included a snatch of Simon and Garfunkel’s America (“All come to look for America”)—was performed on the smaller stage, band members dressed in black, but for Larry’s brilliantly white t-shirt. These popular favorites suitably covered the band’s positon on the eve of The Joshua Tree’s original release—their early activist-oriented work—together with a deja-vu homecoming to America.

Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech crawled across the screens for Pride. “Sing for those holding on to the American dream,” Bono said. “The party of Lincoln, the party of Kennedy and those in-between. You’re welcome here tonight. We’re reaching for higher ground. Some people think that dream is dead so sing out. Maybe the dream is just telling us to wake up. . . . The spirit of Dr. King wants to awaken the America of compassion, community, the America of justice, of joy. Awaken. Awaken.” (Personally, I question the survival–and even the existence–of the party of Lincoln every day.)

Proper staging for a full top-to-bottom presentation of The Joshua Tree was imperative. Where the Streets Have No Name has become such an emotionally anthemic portion of U2 concerts, that its power and celebration would evaporate if delivered too soon. That four-song intro resolved this sticky issue, allowing band members to be silhouetted against the familiar wash of red light that announced Streets original tour opening, a staccato of flashing lights erupting in the limbs of the Joshua tree. The crimson melts into a deep rich saffron—“I want to feel sunlight on my face”—and a familiar, empty desert highway, scratched in the vastness of the Mojave Desert, stretches out under dramatic storm clouds. The audience rejoices, seventy-thousand strong.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For extends the desert imagery to sunset-fired hills, With or Without You incorporates a small bit of Breathe, and a blistering Bullet the Blue Sky features helmeted ‘citizens’ on-screen.

Pre-U2 music had included the Clash and Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, with Future Islands slipping into a revved up Black Hole Sun in tribute to Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, who had tragically committed suicide three days earlier. An especially moving Running to Stand Still is performed “for the lion that was Chris Cornell. We send a prayer to his lioness, Vicky” and their children. “A beautiful sweet soul.”

The brass band on screen for Red Hill Mining Town appears to play opposite U2 at times. Never before played live, this song had a depth of feeling in the original video that to me seemed muted in this incarnation “We’ve been blowing a little fluff off the needle these past few days,” Bono said at the end. “And wondering why we never played that last tune, Red Hill Mining Town. Never played it on the original tour. One of those songs that just feels right for the times. Not just in England but here in America.”

“The next song is for the landscape of this country,” Bono said on introducing a spine-tingling In God’s Country, so apropos for our wide western deserts. “Not just physical but psychological and spiritual.” A Joshua tree mid-screen changes color, low rolling hills behind. “These desert songs mean a lot to us and it seems they mean so much to you too.” A gorgeous One Tree Hill for Maori roadie Greg Carroll follows, with images of native people and a reddish eclipsed moon.

Exit is preceded by a snippet from a 1958 episode of Trackdown. The western TV series starring Robert Culp as bounty hunter Hoby Gilman aired from 1957 to 1959. Gilman calls out a grifter named Trump, another con-artist promising another wall. “You’re a liar, Trump,” Gilman asserts to raucous cheers, before Exit kicks in. An extraordinarily expressive Mothers of the Disappeared follows. Women wrapped in deep blue light hold candles that flicker out one by one.

El Pueblo Vencera wraps up the glories of The Joshua Tree with gratitude and deep emotion, and after thanks all around, Bono dedicates the show to Guus Van Hove (manager of the pop venue 013 in Tilburg, the Netherlands) and his girlfriend, Helena Nuellett. Both U2 fans died in August of 2011 searching California’s Joshua Tree National Monument in 104 degree heat, looking for the site of The Joshua Tree album cover shoot, which, in reality, lay hours to the north closer to Death Valley.

Beautiful Day opens the single encore with Bono back on the smaller stage. He incorporates a portion of LaLa Land’s City of Stars, closing with “it’s a beautiful day when we respect human rights. When sisters around the world can sit in schools like their brothers, that’s a beautiful day. It’s a beautiful day when people call home the place they want to live. It’s a beautiful day when women of the world unite to re-write history as Herstory.”

Spoken lyrics usher in Elevation. “I believe in you,” Bono sings to the band. “Who doesn’t believe in Larry Mullen Jr?” he asks, as Larry gives a thumbs-up to the camera behind him.

Ultraviolet is simply unparalleled in every way. “Would it be indulgent for the band to give thanks to the women in our lives?” Bono asks. “To Ali, to Morleigh, to Ann, to Mariana. To the women on our crew. To the women in the audience that we feel we know. To the women in faraway places who we can never know the shit they have to deal with. And the women who stand up or sit down for their rights, who insist, persist, who resist—these women light our way. This goes out to my two daughters Jordon and Eve, who are here tonight. Thank you for lighting my way.”

During this rousing track, portraits of pioneering women flash up on the screen—Ellen Degeneres, Virginia Wolfe, Lena Dunham, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Melinda Gates, Ruth Ellis, Rosetta Tharpe, Saffujah Khan, Pussy Riot, Oprah Winfrey, Grace Jones, Bell Hooks, Angela Merkel, Wasp Women Airforce Pilots, Ellen Sirleaf, Patti Smith, Eunice Kennedy Schriver, Sandra Day O’Connor, Women’s Land Army, Suffragettes, Women of Iceland.

“Poverty is Sexist” and “Women of the World Unite,” close out the visuals. “Nothing scares the shit out of politicians more than people organized,” Bono says. “Government should fear its people not the other way around. Organize don’t agonize. Sometimes it’s luminous figures that light the way. But most times its social movements that actually change history.”

Prior to a compelling One, Bono addresses his ONE organization. “We’re very proud that One now has 8 million members,” he says. “Eighteen million Aids sufferers saved with one pill a day thanks largely to the USA. If you’re a tax-payer you’re an Aids activist.” Adam returns to the smaller stage and One is dedicated to David Wojnarowicz and Mark Pellington, both involved with One visuals, the former for the buffalo shots now on-screen.

Footage from a Jordanian refugee camp accompanies a powerful Miss Sarajevo, all four band members together again on the smaller stage. “Is it a time for saving your neighbor whether an enemy or a friend,” Bono asks and recites the inspirational words on the plaque of the Statue of Liberty. A young Syrian girl on-screen speaks about the stark realities of her world, about the strength and resilience of her dreams, while a large silken square of fabric printed with her face passes hand to hand around the lower tier. Miss Sarajevo finishes with thanks to the French artist who made the film “and to Anton Corbjn who made the earlier films and made a lot of our artwork over the years and, of course, thanks to the great A-Team that put together this show. Willie Williams, Joe O, Smasher, the U2 crew. The A-team. They tell me I’m the only B on the A-Team.” Bono laughs. “Any way, thanks for giving us a great life. Let’s do this again in 2047”. (Not a chance!)

As a stunning surprise, Bad, in blue light, reprises the same snippet of Simon and Garfunkel’s America. I’d mourned Bad’s absence a tad at the beginning of the concert. Bad had shown up in two prior shows as part of the opening set, and I had resigned myself to being deprived. The Little Things that Give You Away, from the band’s upcoming Songs of Experience, had apparently even appeared on the night’s printed set-list. What a blessing then to hear those spine-tingling opening notes! Bad! Still my all-time favorite U2 track.

A group huddle afterwards resulted in the bonus track I Will Follow, which brought the house down all over again. Thunderous audience participation and a pogoing Edge. “Biggest thrill ever, LA, turning on the radio and they’re playing a song that sounds a little like this,” Bono said. “We surrender, surrender to your love. . . . ”

And so The Joshua Tree 2017 comes to a close. Uber fans and other fans could not have asked for a more joyful, hopeful, and inspirational Saturday night. Musically spot on; with U2’s heart and signature social conscience wide open, at full throttle.

What a band! What a night!

 

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  • Copyright © 2011-16, Dianne Ebertt Beeaff. All Rights Reserved.
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