Is The Joshua Tree Bigger Than U2? That's How It Felt Saturday at the Rose Bowl

The Edge (left), Bono, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.EXPAND
The Edge (left), Bono, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.
Mathew Tucciarone

U2: The Joshua Tree Tour 2017
The Rose Bowl
Saturday, May 20, 2017

From the opening chords of their breakthrough single, "I Will Follow," it was always clear that U2 wanted to be superstars. Every song was an anthem, every performance a political rally. But something about the way The Joshua Tree made them superstars never seemed to sit quite right with them. When they released the moodier, murkier Achtung Baby four years later, in 1991, Bono famously described that album as the sound of "four men chopping down The Joshua Tree." It was as if The Joshua Tree, with its desert imagery, American themes and cinematic soundscapes, existed outside of the Irish post-punk band that had created it — as if the album itself had become the superstar, and U2's continued existence stood almost in opposition to it.

That was certainly the feeling at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, an early stop on U2's 33-date "Joshua Tree Tour 2017," marking the 30th anniversary of their bestselling, most influential album. For the first time ever, they would play The Joshua Tree live in its entirety, front to back. Some songs, like "Red Hill Mining Town," had never been performed live. Others, like fan favorite "One Tree Hill," have barely been heard since the '80s. For anyone who grew up on The Joshua Tree, as I did, it was not to be missed.

I was a senior in high school when The Joshua Tree came out in March 1987. Its impact on me and my classmates was immediate and profound. Just a couple months before graduation, U2 had gifted us with the perfect soundtrack for that mix of hope, excitement and terror that accompanies the feeling of being flung out of your former life and into the great unknown. The album's songs were yearning and epic and bittersweet, which was how we all felt every time we opened a college acceptance letter, or found out a close friend would be moving several time zones away.

Every single person I knew owned a copy of The Joshua Tree. It played at every party and in the cassette deck of every road trip. It was the closest thing my generation had to a Sgt. Pepper. I think U2 are aware of this, which probably explains why every step in their career since has, on some level, been a reaction to The Joshua Tree, running away from its widescreen sound or returning to it. To create a piece of art that means so much to so many, especially at such a young age (in 1987, the band were all in their 20s), must be overwhelming.

The 200-foot wide LED video screen is the largest ever used on a tour, according to U2's representatives.EXPAND
The 200-foot wide LED video screen is the largest ever used on a tour, according to U2's representatives.
Mathew Tucciarone

On this tour, maybe for the first time since the victory lap that was their 1988 mishmash of a double album, Rattle and Hum, U2 are not only returning to The Joshua Tree, but surrendering to it. For the first half of the show, they were content to let the album be the star of the show, barely appearing on the 200-foot-wide video screen that served as the show's backdrop. Instead, they literally played in the shadow a 50-foot Joshua tree silhouette built into the screen while desert landscapes, shot mostly in luminous black-and-white by Anton Corbijn (who did the iconic photography on the original album), unfurled behind them.

They began the set not with The Joshua Tree but with a quartet of now-classic songs that predate it: "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "New Year's Day," "A Sort of Homecoming" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)," all performed on a satellite stage in the center of the floor, positioned and shaped to look like a shadow cast by the Joshua tree that loomed over the main stage. There were no projections during this portion, no cameras following the band — an attempt to make a stadium show feel intimate, perhaps, or to foster the illusion that except for bassist Adam Clayton's shock of white hair, the band hadn't aged in 30 years. But it also reinforced that shadow metaphor, as if to acknowledge that the band's pre-Joshua Tree catalog, for all its great moments, will forever be eclipsed by what came later.

After "Pride," the band returned to the main stage and stood together briefly as The Edge's looped and layered opening chords for "Where the Streets Have No Name," The Joshua Tree's opening track, chimed out over the stadium. A desert highway appeared on the screen behind them. The crowd, a mix of old and young, a surprisingly high percentage of them sporting old U2 concerts tees, held illuminated cellphones aloft like Bic lighters. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. For various reasons that now all seem foolish, this was my first time seeing U2 live, and I immediately understood why, for some fans, a U2 concert is almost a religious experience. It was the first of several powerful moments throughout the show.

There was the moment when Bono grabbed a stage light and shone it on The Edge's guitar during his solo on "Bullet the Blue Sky," recreating the image from the cover of Rattle and Hum. There was the thrill of hearing "Red Hill Mining Town" live, with the brass band buried on the original album mix now prominently featured (albeit in prerecorded form). There was Bono's creepily unhinged performance on "Exit," perhaps The Joshua Tree's most overlooked track, a chilling portrait of a killer possessed with religious fervor that includes some of the singer's best lyrics ("He could see the stars shine like nails in the night").

U2's Larry Mullen Jr. (left) and BonoEXPAND
U2's Larry Mullen Jr. (left) and Bono
Mathew Tucciarone

For me, the show's emotional highlight came during "One Tree Hill," a song U2 rarely perform live. Written as a tribute to Greg Carroll, a roadie and close friend of Bono's who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1986, the song features one of The Edge's best guitar hooks and an emotional Bono performance that was allegedly recorded in a single take because he broke down and couldn't do another. He got through it OK last night, but I must admit I was choking back tears the whole time.

"One Tree Hill" is the apotheosis of everything that's great about U2, and The Joshua Tree in particular. Though the song's subject matter is intensely personal, it's expressed through imagery that, to borrow a later Bono phrase, tries to throw its arms around the world. It's a paean to a fallen friend and to "poets [who] speak their heart and then bleed for it." I understand why some people find lyrics like that pompous, but to me there's a poetry and honesty to them. The world is a shitty place and it will take from you everything you hold dear, but there's beauty in it, too — and "One Tree Hill" captures both those things in images of stars falling from the sky, rain in your heart, the way our lives run like rivers to the great ocean of death. It's a stunningly beautiful, powerful song, and hearing U2 play it live is easily one of the best experiences I've ever had at a concert.

After the final notes of "Mothers of the Disappeared" rang out over the Rose Bowl, Bono briefly addressed the audience. "These desert songs mean so much to us," he said, visibly moved, still rattled and humming from his own band's music, even several dates into the tour. There was a sense that we'd all just been in the presence of something greater than any of us, even the four men (and their massive, behind-the-scenes crew, including some offstage synthesizer wizard and whoever runs all the effects on The Edge's miraculously pedal-less guitars) who had conjured it.

U2 returned and played for another 45 minutes, pointedly opening the show's second half with "Beautiful Day," a song frequently described at the time of its release in 2000 as the band's first return to the grandiosity of The Joshua Tree. But in this context, "Beautiful Day" felt like The Joshua Tree's opposite — all feel-good, arena-rock bombast, with none of the youthful yearning and spiritual overtones of its closest Joshua Tree analog, "Where the Streets Have No Name." As if to drive home the contrast, the desert images on the stage's massive screen were replaced by monolithic, full-color live shots of each member of the band, bashing away at the song's driving rhythms and anthemic chords. What had felt like a communion now felt like a rock concert.

The EdgeEXPAND
The Edge
Mathew Tucciarone

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Not that this was a bad thing — though I don't care much for anything on the "return to form" 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind, the crowd was clearly delighted to hear "Beautiful Day" and even more stoked for "Elevation" off the same album, jumping and fist-pumping with more enthusiasm than at any other point in the entire show. I felt a similar surge of energy when they later dipped back into their pre-Joshua Tree catalog for "Bad" and "I Will Follow" — the latter of which they played as a de facto encore, with Bono briefly introducing it as the song they had been thrilled to hear on the radio during their first visit to L.A. many years ago. The Joshua Tree is certainly not the end-all and be-all of U2's remarkable career, and it wasn't the sole source of highlights during last night's show.

But The Joshua Tree does occupy a special place in U2's catalog, and in the history of rock music as a whole. Its arrival signaled the beginning and the end of something for my generation. One of the albums it knocked off the top of the charts was Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet. U2 are frequently, and fairly, accused of bombast and pretension, but they don't get enough credit for how much they reintroduced poetry and atmosphere and emotional weight back into rock & roll at a time when it was in danger of becoming a caricature of itself. The DNA of The Joshua Tree is in the music of countless bands that followed, from Radiohead and Arcade Fire to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, whose "Black Hole Sun" they played as their intro music (and to whose fallen singer, Chris Cornell, they dedicated "Running to Stand Still"). Even last night's opening band, The Lumineers, who were toddlers when The Joshua Tree came out, clearly owe it a debt in their stomping, howl-at-the-moon take on American roots music.

So while last night was decidedly a U2 concert — complete with the band's trademark political messaging, including some very moving videos of a Syrian refugee camp and a somewhat less moving, heavy-handed montage of influential women to whom they dedicated "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" (side note: based on crowd cheers, Michelle Obama is now more revered than Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou or Sojourner Truth) — it was above all a Joshua Tree concert. Though U2 are still superstars, their greatest album is an ever bigger superstar — and in a performance that felt almost gracious, stripped of any rock-star posturing, they let its majestic music take center stage.

Set list below.

Bono sings "WIth or Without You."EXPAND
Bono sings "WIth or Without You."
Mathew Tucciarone

Set list:
Sunday Bloody Sunday
New Year's Day
A Sort of Homecoming
Pride (In the Name of Love)
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
Exit
Mothers of the Disappeared

(break)

Beautiful Day
Elevation
Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
One
Miss Sarajevo
Bad
I Will Follow


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