I sit with fans from around the world, some of whom are seeing every show on this tour and speak very little English. What makes them come back, queuing in the Brisbane humidity, the Melbourne chill, Adelaide heat and Sydney rain, I ask. The answer is varied but there’s a clear, common thread of how the band speaks about and for life, what glues us together as human beings.
Fans will often say, there is a spiritual element to the show, that a U2 concert is a spiritual experience. People feed off it like a drug, no-one leaves a U2 concert angry, for a moment they search for a ‘better self’.
In the Name of Love
I remember seeing Bono sing for the first time on television when I was about 14. It was a commercial for a singles compilation of mixed artists. U2’s contribution was Pride in the Name of Love, the voice over calling it ‘the biggy from U2’. And it was. Still is.
I think if any song captures a band, it’s probably that single.
Sure, there’d be no Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby or anything more than ‘I Will Follow’, without Edge’s spiritual breakthrough on Sunday Bloody Sunday. That song was not just a great single, but a door into a large, large house; a copious canon that is celebrated in three inspiring acts of the Joshua Tree Anniversary Tour.
I wasn’t convinced by the concept of the Joshua Tree Anniversay show before I went; nor overly excited by the giant screen and high stage as it didn’t really advance the artform of stadium rock concerts beyond what U2 had already achieved on Popmart or Vertigo tours. I bought tickets because I had faith in the band to not turn up without the goods; I trusted them to be the amazing live act, they’ve always been. They didn’t disappoint.
Epic night of rock in Sydney
Time almost stands still as we sit drearily for hours in the drizzle wearing ponchos as our bottoms get soaked through on the corrugated steel floor that protects the SCG. When Noel Gallagher comes on he chides us for wearing ponchos saying
'What you wearing ponchos for? Your soft that's why. We put up with this s*^! every week in England. You won't see a single Irishman wearing a poncho out here. No sir. Tell you one thing though...when they (U2) come out the rain will stop because they'll be f*&^!% praying back stage!'
Big laugh from the soggy throng that's lined up early.
Where Bono had previously been announcing the band’s prayer for an epic night of rock at the beginning of Bad, tonight it soon became clear we were going to see the answer.
Bono’s talking about letting go of somethings and hold others tight and how 22 years ago we lost a precious light, referring to Michael Hutchence with whom he was close. Bono segways mid song to sing snippets of INXS’s ‘Never Tear Us Apart’, returning to Bad, then back again to another part of the song ‘we all have wings, but some of us don’t know why’. It’s one of those moments that aren’t repeatable, are off script and there are many more to come that make the show probably the best U2 concert I’ve ever been to.
Of-course it helps that my whole family is here, with another dear family and their kids. All ten of us are right behind the B-stage, where we can see the eyeballs and expressions on the faces of these mega-rock stars and get the full force of their energy supported by this giant cinema screen.
22 years since a bright light stopped shining, this day.
The tribute to Hutchence is echoed at the end of Vertigo with a snippet of ‘Devil Inside’ and then properly and formally conducted through the song Stuck in A Moment that almost closes the show.
During the song, (a song Bono says he wrote as an argument with Michael or with himself, he’s not sure which) we get a series of private photos of Michael up on the big screen. For once, most of the audience phone-cameras are down and everyone is just staring gob-smacked and deeply moved, some to tears.
Prophetic Words Speak Then and Now
I’ve really loved this tour and fallen for its heart, the achingly beautiful, Joshua Tree album, with all 11 tracks performed faithfully and in order from beginning to end.
Where Pride ended the first act where ‘pub rock takes down the stadium’, the concert seamlessly bleeds into Pride’s ‘sister’ track, Where the Streets Have No Name.
As the band retreats one by one from the Joshua Tree shaped B-stage up the ramp and onto the main stage, Bono reflects on Dr Martin Luther King and prays:
‘in a time of terror, keep us tolerant; in a time of fear, keep us faithful; to justice; to joy; to compassion; to community; here with our community’
The band takes position, posing in front of a giant red screen that silhouettes them and an enormous Joshua tree that is behind them. Edge’s guitar chimes making the hair stand up on the back of your neck as the band launches into an truly cinematic version of Streets.
To think that sound was in my head for the last 30 or more years and its still lost none of its joy and power, only grown bigger and more relevant with time.
As the song hits full stride, the band is lifted almost magically onto a road in the desert and seem to glide along it as they play. Up close in the mosh pit it feels trippy.
Like Pride, the song signals what this band is about, their identity as a rock band, in many ways.
Both songs speak powerfully, unforgettably, about the stuff that glues us together and tears us apart.
Our love turns to rust
In a world where borders are now going up again and walls are being built to shut out the refugees across Europe and in our own country where we use the sea, the band speaks of not many nations but One, of there being ‘no them’ only ‘us’. Community. Grace. Kindness.
Audiences and devoted fans are here because of this band’s identity; because they speak of the irreducibly simple; they plea for what is desperately needed.
(‘Let’s go) where the streets have no name,
we go there with you,
that’s all we know how to do’ sings Bono.
Love seen its better day
One of my favourite tracks on this tour has been Red Hill Mining Town, a song the band never really performed live because Bono couldn’t hit the notes. But the version they perform (a Steve Lillywhite remix), on this tour is backed with brass from a Salvation Army band on the big screen and it is a really tight number. Bono sings it beautifully and the lyrics really hit home:
‘Love slowly stripped away,
love seen its better day...
you’re all there’s left to hold on to’
We can be so hard of heart.
We can 'stoop so low to reach so high'
We tread on the weak, we serve only our own interests
Kindness goes out the window.
Fear leads self-interest and preservation…at what cost?
‘Bruised by fear, injured in doubt, our love runs cold, but you I can’t live without’
Some of these songs on the Joshua Tree still speak today, just as much as they did 30 years ago.
I guess that is the nature of prophecy.
When you measure actions in one generation by God’s yard stick, it won’t be long before it will weigh another generation and find it wanting.
The value of U2's songs are not lost on our kids either as they can't help but comment on the giant chasm between this band's songs and the 'culture' of many pop acts today.
Introducing In God’s Country Bono warns us that ‘in a blink of an eye a country’s landscape can change, not physically, but spiritually, psychically, you know what I’m saying!’ before Edge and the band play a blistering rendition, in front of some magnificently, luminous and surrealist graphics of a Joshua Tree put together by long time photographer of the band, Anton Corbijn.
Hands that build and hands that tear down love
Exit, the penultimate Joshua Tree track, has to be the ultimate tipping point.
Here the hands of love and hands of hate move in fists toward each other on the big screen above the band and in the song, we see the destructive power of fear that leads to horrendous acts tearing us apart.
The whole piece is a stand-out, knock out punch introduced by a black and white film that satirizes the narcissm of leaders like Donald Trump.
In Adelaide, my wife and I saw Bono’s acting chops at their finest as he grinned menacingly into the camera and then in a split second dulled his eyes so we could see the psychopath inside.
Lights out. Music stops. Terror.
Thankfully, there's still the soothing prayer of Mothers of the Disappeared to finish out the Joshua Tree anniversary part of the show
Mothers is haunting and very moving. The way it is juxtaposed in the show makes you wonder...is this a kind of judgement day?
The song was originally written about family members who disappeared when they opposed Chilean dictator, Pinochet.
In concert we see the psycophath in Exit who has given in to hate, face the Mothers who appear in a mist on the big screen like they've come from the next world. Holding candles representing their 'disappeared' loved ones, they stand silent in front of Bono who is on his knees on the stage ramp facing them.
Time to answer for your actions, buddy.
Evil will not have the last word.
But more on that and a little excursus on Bono's view of Scripture in the final post for this tour, next time...