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We realised that there's only a certain amount of Joshua trees you can chop down.-- Larry, on recording All That You Can't Leave Behind, 2002

Column: off the record ... Vol. 17-761



Tour Review: The Joshua Tree Tour 2017

The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 kicked off on Friday night in Vancouver, which is an odd location to start a tour that’s about a journey into the heartland of two Americas — a phrase coined in promotional materials for Rattle And Hum, which documented the band’s 1987 The Joshua Tree tour. Logistics being what they are, the band found BC Place to be a venue they could spend more than just opening night in, so the city worked for them. The venue was decked out with U2 promotion plastered on its walls, flagpoles and digital screens. Concert posters were pasted on available signposts. Advertising could be found on the back of bicycle taxis, above bike-share rental locations and on digital screens downtown. For two weeks, residents in downtown Vancouver heard rehearsals blasted from the venue — so loud that at least one local hotel offered earplugs to guests to combat the “noise.”

Using Vancouver for preparations may have taken the pressure off U2 because they could delay crafting their love letter to America. The Joshua Tree was inspired by the band’s journey across the country in the mid-'80s. The vastness of the differing landscapes all interconnecting in one geographically cohesive continent was a backdrop that for the last 30 years defined the visual interpretation of the album.

Decades later, U2 have decided that we all need a reminder of that vastness and interconnectedness. The landscape has been there since before we were born, and will be there long after we are gone. It’s how we connect with it during the time we’re above the soil that matters. We’re all just visitors for a short time, wandering on a journey of discovery. It’s also important to take a moment and consider the source of the natural landscape that’s around us. Sometimes, you’ve got to get your head out of the mud, baby, and go to the overground to start that personal journey to seek something greater than yourself.

That is where we begin The Joshua Tree 2017 tour. U2 started the show in the middle of more than 40,000 people in BC Place, playing on the tree stage (or b-stage) for the first five songs. It was as if they were one of us, coming down to our level (as the tree stage is much lower than the main stage) for “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and creating small talk: “I can’t believe the news today…” Each member was positioned at a different part of the tree, breaking down the fourth wall from the very start. White lights flooded the stadium each time “tonight, we can be as one” was sung to highlight that inclusiveness. The same treatment happened during “New Year’s Day” with the line “I will be with you again.” Both songs are well known to the audience, with many dancing. These two politically themed songs from the album War share a similar sentiment to how America is feeling at the moment: How long must we sing this song? Because nothing’s changing.

If war isn’t the answer, then what can bring us that peace we’re seeking? Enter “A Sort Of Homecoming,” the opening track from The Unforgettable Fire. People are running away from the war and strife, searching for home. “Let’s build a bridge across the sea and land” — compromise and connection. “For tonight with you, I am coming home.” The next two songs, “MLK” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” continue that peaceful transition to compromise and coexistence. With U2 still on the tree stage, the screen finally comes alive with scrolling words, starting from the right and scrolling left during “Pride,” with parts of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches and single words such as “sing,” “compassion” and “promise.”

Listening to the first five songs felt like being at church when you sing songs of worship ahead of the pastor’s sermon. The songs are to prepare the heart, soul and mind to receive the spirit through the pastor’s teaching. I believe that participatory opening to the show was designed to prepare us for the next 11 songs, the ones we were all there to see in sequence.

As the band ascended to the main stage at the start of “Where The Streets Have No Name,” the screen went red, evoking the shift from black and white to color in Rattle And Hum. In the first of many nostalgia nods of the evening, the band’s black silhouettes against the red backdrop took you right back to 1988. As a bonus, they even walked across the screen and assumed their positions at the main stage in a similar way. I’m not going to lie: I may have been a little euphoric as that was happening. Subtle, but huge to those who are as geeked out about U2 as I am.

The towering end zone-filling screen was akin to a virtual reality simulator as the first verse started. The immensity of the screen, combined with the clarity and resolution, made you feel like you were actually moving along the road behind the band. For the entirety of the song, you were just moving down this black-and-white landscape on a no-name road, passing people who were walking alongside it. The band was not the focus of the performance: The road was. We were starting this journey through the heartland of the two Americas. Little did we know what we’d discover along the path.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” had a similar treatment, where the band wasn’t the focus. Rather, the accompanying film took us through a sort of ethereal journey through different types of black-and-white nature scenes from the Midwest region of the United States. At this point, people in the stands began to sit down. The band wasn’t exactly encouraging dancing; rather, they seemed to want us to drink it all in. Be aware of your surroundings and take a step back to look around you.

The shift to a color film for “With Or Without You” was symbolic. The film depicted a day in the life of a Midwest mountain landscape with high and low points, a flat region between two sets of mountains. “With Or Without You” is about relationships — nothing is black-and-white in them. Fellow @U2 staffer Ian Ryan said during breakfast the day after the concert that the rust-color environment might also symbolize the land taking issue with living among us. The theme of interconnectedness, that we all fit in this “dream landscape” (from “A Sort Of Homecoming”), redefines “With Or Without You” for me. The presentation made the song seem bigger than personal relationships, and to borrow a phrase from “Peace On Earth,”  bigger than any big idea. The land itself is turning on us: global warming, disease, famine, extinction.

The Joshua Tree 2017 tour book dedicates 12 pages (over one-third of the book) to the history of “Bullet The Blue Sky.” For the past 30 years, it is a performance people talk about the next day because of the intensity of it. The band seemed to take a more subtle approach to it this time. Contrary to what many were hoping, we didn’t get the Dreamforce-style rant from 2016. Quite the opposite: The band stayed truer to form with a throwback performance of the song from 1987 complete with the single spotlight and Rattle And Hum choreography.

The Rattle And Hum cover art pose was even replicated. The accompanying film began full-screen with people next to a boarded-up shelter. The shelter has an American flag on it, which might symbolize how the country is boarded up and unable to shelter the weary traveler. It was then split-screened with a close-up of the individual on one side, a full-body focus on the other. Individuals from various backgrounds (age, race, gender) were seen donning a war helmet in front of a painted American flag looking stoic and emotionless, making you wonder about their purpose and motivation (willingly or by force) for putting on the helmet. At the center of the screen, there’s live camera footage of the performance, similar to “Raised By Wolves” from the Innocence + Experience tour, but with more chaos. The lighting scheme is red, white and blue. Edge’s guitar solo, which is typically red, is now blue: a cooler color but a hotter flame. The anger and anguish is directed through the guitar, not a verbal rant. The spotlight Bono uses also has an attached camera, so when he points the spotlight on himself, the perspective shift feels more like a first-hand report of what is happening in the moment. This time the focus in “Bullet” isn’t the character the singer is portraying, but rather on what is actually happening, and the singer as historian documenting it. Since ZooTV, “Bullet” has been sung through a character. Friday’s concert it didn’t feel like that, so they have redefined the song and performance.

Running To Stand Still” is a stark contrast from the bomblast of “Bullet.” The performance was gentle and felt like a compassionate hug from someone who understood. The almost whispered quality of the vocals evoked a sense of grace offered to those who are still afflicted by addiction.

As first-side songs of The Joshua Tree concluded, I had to admit it was a great deal to process. It wasn’t what I was expecting, and the crowd’s muted enthusiasm with polite clapping threw me. It felt like we were waiting for the full performance of the album to conclude before people cheered. It was surreal. I knew “Red Hill Mining Town” wasn’t going to make the audience spring out from their seats, and watching the Salvation Army Band on the screen as the song was performed wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for the tune after all the promotion for the single. I was expecting images of the families affected by the miners’ strike juxtaposed with current scenes across America of closed factories and closed coal mines, long unemployment lines, etc. Also, the timing appeared off — it didn’t seem like the video of the band played in time to the music. As a die-hard fan, I thought it was great to hear the track performed live for the first time, but that fact was lost on tens of thousands in the stadium.

The next two songs were a bit more fun, offering a welcome break from the mid-tempo malaise (as Adam coined it). “In God’s Country” was a fun tune in which the Joshua tree was the star. The resolution on the screen made it appear almost 3-D, and the changing lighting on the tree made it feel like the giant lemon discoball from the PopMart tour. The communal spirit flowed through the song as if U2 were back in the desert playing the track under the tree, like many who have made the pilgrimage to find where the original tree from the album art once stood.

Trip Through Your Wires” brought some familiar images to the screen. First was the return of the boarded-up black-and-white shack from “Bullet The Blue Sky.” Now, however, the shack is in color, being repaired and repainted by a woman on the right side of the screen, while on the left (Edge’s side of the stage), we find Edge's wife Morleigh twirling a lasso while wearing an American flag-designed bikini top, ripped jeans and a cowboy hat covering part of her face. This was another nod to a past tour where during the ZooTV Outside Broadcast gigs, she would appear projected behind Edge while belly dancing on the b-stage, once again belly exposed but face slightly hidden. The lasso symbolizes the wire that snares the weary traveler (“I was thirsty, and you wet my lips”). It may also serve as a preview for the show’s woman-focused encore because a woman is repairing the brokenness of the shelter.

Most know that “One Tree Hill” is a tribute Bono wrote for his friend Greg Carroll. As the song begins, a red moon appears, which fades away to an image of a member of a native American Indian tribe. Carroll was a member of the Maori tribe in his native New Zealand. The film beautifully captures the essence of the song. It was the first time I’ve heard it live, and it’s usually reserved for when the band travel to New Zealand. This is another track with symbolism that may be lost on many in the audience.

For a few reasons, “One Tree Hill” concludes with a hard break. First, there is a definite shift in content from that track to “Exit.” Second, Bono has to get into character. For those looking for the rant in “Bullet,” you will find it here in spades. There’s a film montage at the start with voiceovers from a 1950s TV show called Trackdown asking people about Trump. Ironicallly, the name of the episode is "The End Of The World." This gives Bono time to get into his newest character: the snake oil dealer-turned televangelist showman (remember Mirrorball man from ZooTV or his evil twin MacPhisto?). In this incarnation, Bono sheds his eyeglasses and finds his Stetson hat. He is everything that is wrong with what’s going on right now socio-politically. He’s trying to sell you on pack of lies, encouraging you to put your hand up on the screen in allegiance. People who believe they are in the clear after “Bullet The Blue Sky,” thinking Bono isn’t going down that road, will be taken aback for sure. This new treatment of “Exit” redefines the song and gives Bono the ability to make the statement I feel some fans were hoping he’d make. For me, this was the showstopper of the night.

Going from “Exit” to “Mothers Of The Disappeared” felt like two sides of the same coin given the deportation issues in America at the moment. “Mothers Of The Disappeared” was also featured in a six-page piece in the tour book. Once again, the resolution of the screen made it appear like the women holding candles behind the band were physically there. Each woman’s candle represented the life of her son, and as the song began to end, the candles went out one-by-one. As the candle went out, so did a channel on the mixing desk. The song ended when the last candle was extinguished. I had an “ugly” cry because it was so moving. This song can eerily be redefined in 2017 America, where ICE agents have been separating families for deportation. Like “One Tree Hill,” it is rarely played and usually reserved for South America.

The conclusion of “Mothers Of The Disappeared” received a great deal of applause as the band took their bows and went to change for the encore. Unfortunately, stadium staff turned on the internal screen system with stadium promotions, making people think the show was over. I saw people begin to gather their stuff and motion to leave. Some in general admission began making their way to the exits. There was nothing on the screen to serve as a transition from one section of the show to another. This awkward, hard break broke any momentum the band had.

The encore shifted away from the landscape of America to a more global world view. Soon, a mirrorball dropped from the sky like a messenger from above, delivering a Technicolor stain-glass inspired “Beautiful Day,” pepping up the congregation. People did get out of their seats to dance and participate in the song. It was good fun seeing the floating heads with digitized singing on the screen, a throwback to the “Crazy Tonight” dance party during the U2 360 tour.

The party continued with “Elevation," with Bono hyping the progress that has been made and how it should make us elevated. Once again, the video treatment for “Elevation” harks back to 2001’s Elevation tour with all four members featured across four separate boxes.

Completing the trinity of up-tempo tunes was “Ultraviolet,” redefined as a celebration of women who have made a significant impact in the world: Sojourner Truth, Malala Yousafzai, Angela Merkel, Ellen DeGeneres, the members of Pussy Riot, Rosa Parks, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Emily Wilding Davidson and many others. Taking a page from PopMart, each person’s face had a vibrant color to give each one individuality. Ultraviolet light cannot be seen by the human eye, but is critical to life itself. The redefinition of “Ultraviolet” makes a powerful statement about women’s rights, their role in history, and continues the ONE Campaign’s “Poverty Is Sexist” initiative.

Not surprisingly, “One” followed in the setlist. Bono wanted Canada to send a message to the USA, trying to get people in the stadium to sing “The power of people is greater than the people in power.” This is from the book, “Revolution 2.0: The Power Of People Is Greater Than The People In Power” by Wael Ghonim, an executive from Google credited with helping drive the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt. In his 2011 TED Talk, he goes into detail about his influence on the Arab Spring. In a 2015 TED Talk, he makes a case to do good with social media instead of using it for selfies and trolling people. I hope that this part of the show will be well received in America. Many coming to a U2 show may have participated in a protest march over the previous few months, with others feeling like they have to take the country back. “The power of the people is greater than the people in power” will have an impact for sure.

With hearts and minds primed with a social justice message, we meet 15-year-old Omaima Thaer Hoshan, a girl from Syria living in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. She introduces herself, and shares her dreams and vision for her future. We then bear witness to the living conditions at the Zaatari Refugee Camp as well as the devastation across Syria. This is the backdrop for “Miss Sarajevo,” a song about the Bosnian War from 1992-1996. The enormity of the screen cannot contain the enormity of devastation and despair. During a song, a giant banner with her face starts moving across the lower sections of the stadium. A spotlight follows the banner from section to section. Once again, U2 breaks down the fourth wall through this tangible example of holding her up and supporting her. She moved you; now you move her. It is an emotionally powerful moment at the end of the show that will hopefully grow to be more of a production piece. The banner did not make it to all sections at the stadium, and not everyone could see the banner moving. I hope they expand on this as the sizes of the stadiums expand.

Ending with “Miss Sarajevo” would be too emotionally draining, so U2 provided a special treat as the closing song for the show: a new track from the forthcoming Songs Of Experience called “The Little Things That Give You Away.” Upon first listen, it felt like a throw-on at the end as a preview of the new album. However, once you dig deeper, it’s a worthy ender to a show about interconnectivity and being a part of something bigger than yourself. The lyrics “I saw you on the stairs / You didn’t notice I was there / That’s ’cause you were talking at me, Not to me / You were high above the storm / A hurricane being born / What was freedom / It might cost you your liberty,” is deeply personal. I’m sure over the next few months, we’ll have a bit of insight from Bono about the lyric, so I am being bold to suggest that it might represent the turn in U2’s career that The Joshua Tree created, where superstardom came at a hefty price to all involved. Coming off the innocence of 1987 to the experience of 2017, “The Little Things That Give You Away” is the portal that connects the three decades, but also serves as a connection between the Innocence + Experience tour in 2015 and its potential restart in the future when Songs Of Experience is released.

As with any U2 project, there are many layers to unpack and this tour is no exception. People will take from the concert what they wish, and U2 has created a buffet worthy of the band’s audience. From poetry scrolling the screen during the changeover between acts to nostalgia throwback Easter eggs hidden in the production, the desire to be one with the audience and all things in between, it is a show worthy of the term “special.” It is not your typical concert because every song is its own short story. The trinity of the show’s flow (first five songs among the audience, the album songs, the encore) starts at the personal level, builds to the immediate community level, then expands to a global view. It is clever in that way. This is a deep show that will make you think for sure. The personal journey it will take you on may surprise you, and much like Joshua trees, will remind you of just how important you are in the ecosystem. We are all interconnected, and this tour will help you “dream new dreams tonight.”

©@U2/Lawrence, 2017

Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.