"A performance must be larger than life, but to be worthwhile you must have an element of humanity."
11 Things I Think About U2's Joshua Tree Tour 2017 Opener in Vancouver
May 14, 2017
As I begin this article on Saturday night, it's been 24 hours since U2 opened The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 in Vancouver. I've had conversations about the show with fellow @U2 staffers, @U2 readers/listeners, my family and even a taxi driver (who heard about the near-disaster of the GA entry line). My thoughts on the show are still evolving, and will probably keep evolving in the coming days/weeks. But while opening night is still fresh in my mind, here are 11 things I think right now about the tour and that first concert. These are my opinions; they're subject to change, and likely to be different from how you're feeling 24 hours later.
1.) It's a totally different experience for all of us. This is a U2 show whose themes aren't built around a new album. There are no new stories for us to hear through music and lyrics. There's nothing immediately and obviously new for us to explore. I've been trying to wrap my head around this for weeks or months -- what's it going to be like seeing and hearing a show where nothing is new? I don't really know the answer to that question after one show. I've heard one fan who's seen U2 more than 100 times say it was the most moving concert experience of them all, and another fan said it was the worst U2 show he's ever seen. Crazy. For now, I agree with what our staffer Becky Myers said during our post-show Periscope last night: It was good for what it was.
2.) The show marvelously celebrates The Joshua Tree. In her OTR column Saturday, Sherry Lawrence referred to the show as a "love letter to America." That's true, but it was also a love letter to the album itself. The band doesn't take the main stage until it's time to play The Joshua Tree. The video screen isn't even turned on until a few moments before we start to hear The Joshua Tree. And when it starts, those 11 songs get some of the most visually arresting treatments you'll ever see. Read Sherry's OTR for some thoughts on the meaning behind the 11 Anton Corbijn videos -- one for each song -- but together they make one very clear statement: This album and these songs are special. And that's exactly as it should be.
3.) The show's structure could use some tweaking. I'm not generally one to complain about the songs U2 chooses to play in concert, and I'm not going to do that here, but I think the overall structure could be improved. Like many fans I've spoken with, it felt like the show reached The Joshua Tree too soon. Five songs before "Streets" didn't feel like enough foreplay; it needs more buildup. And six songs in the encore felt a bit long. Do 7-8 songs to start the show, then play the album, then 3-4 songs in the encore and I think the show would flow better.
4.) I wonder if U2 will follow Springsteen's lead. When U2 announced this tour, there were a lot of comparisons to Bruce Springsteen's recent tour for his album The River. Like the Boss did with that album, U2 is playing The Joshua Tree in full and in sequence. But what few U2 fans have also mentioned is that Springsteen eventually changed his mind and, before The River tour went to Europe, announced that he'd stop playing the entire album in sequence every show. Was it because he and the band got tired of doing the full album in order night after night? Was it because fans were using some of the lesser-known songs as a bathroom/food/beer break? I don't follow Springsteen closely enough to know (maybe you do?), but I did notice a good amount of fans on the GA floor last night tuning out during side B -- leaving their spots to get a beer or maybe hit the bathroom during "Red Hill Mining Town" or "Trip Through Your Wires." If that continues at other shows, I have to think the band would notice. Would they reconsider things the same way Springsteen did? Wouldn't surprise me.
5.) Opening nights are always a bit rough. Edge broke a string or had some kind of guitar trouble during "Streets," and there may have been other small hiccups, but I thought this one went pretty smoothly overall. I've now seen three opening night concerts. This one was probably not as good as the Innocence + Experience opener two years ago, but was far better than the PopMart Vegas opener that had all kinds of issues. Whatever problems the band and crew think they had will quickly get ironed out. You can bet the show will get tweaked and improved.
6.) Worst GA entry ever. I don't think I'm the type who gets scared easily, but there were a few really dicey minutes while we were trying to get into the stadium and I started to fear that I and others could easily get hurt. Our staffer Aaron Govern made what I think is a good point: If it had happened at some other concert, with less mature fans, it could've really gotten ugly.
7.) The video screen is beyond incredible. It's 8K resolution. It's huge. It's literally breathtaking. At the beginning of "Streets," as the red screen was replaced by the desert road video, you could hear a collective gasp in the audience -- just like two years ago when the indoor audience first saw Bono inside that I+E video screen during "Cedarwood Road." And not just the screen, but the entire lighting and stage design is stunning. All, as I said above, in perfect celebration of The Joshua Tree.
8.) The pre-"Exit" video bit about President Trump has an incredible story. The song begins with what looks like an old movie clip of some guy named Trump telling the people of some unknown western town that they have to build a wall in order to save themselves. After the show, some of us wondered if the name "Trump" was edited into the clip to make it relevant. We wondered if it was actually current actors being filmed recently with a script that was relevant to current times. Nope. The true story is amazing: It's from a 1950s TV show called Trackdown, and the character in the show is named Walter Trump. As if that's not enough of a coincidence, the episode's title has a distinctly U2 theme, too: "The End Of The World." How perfect is that?
9.) At the risk of inviting your hate mail, I don't like this new version of "Ultraviolet" at all. Don't get me wrong -- the message of celebrating women and women's equality is excellent. But just not that song. "Ultraviolet" is an all-time fave for me with really personal feelings and meanings attached to it, and I got whiplash last night suddenly seeing it politicized and presented as something else. This is exactly how I felt during the Vertigo tour when "Streets" suddenly became the Africa anthem: great cause and message, but not that song. Of course, U2 has the right to present its music however it wants and with whatever meaning it wants, but I also have the right to not like it. I hope you'll respect that before firing off a nasty email or tweet in my direction. :-)
10.) I think it was balls-y to end the show with two essentially unknown songs. "Miss Sarajevo" is a favorite for a lot of die-hards, but I think it's safe to assume the majority of the audience didn't know it. And then none of us knew "The Little Things That Give You Away." I'm pretty sure there's nothing in the rock-and-roll stadium concert playbook that says, "Finish with a couple songs the audience doesn't know." As risky as it was, I also wonder if the end of the show will eventually change.
11.) That last song was a clear message from U2 to you and me. The show ended with a new song that Bono introduced as "a song of experience," a reference to its inclusion on their next album, Songs Of Experience. And the song itself ended with an image on the screen of what we think is the album cover -- a photo of Bono's son Eli holding hands with Edge's daughter, Sian (who's also wearing a military helmet, reminiscent of some of the band's early 1980's imagery). The message? Even though we just spent two hours celebrating our past, we're still very firmly focused on our future. And that's a wonderful message for this fan to hear at the end of a somewhat perplexing U2 show.
(c) @U2, 2017.