Okay... after five days, my in depth review of the opening night of U2's 30th Anniversary Joshua Tree Tour...
As I've said elsewhere the worst U2 concert I've ever seen, is STILL a pretty great show. And yes, this was the worst.
Let's place that in context a bit by reviewing quickly what it was up against:
November '87 at BC Place - the original Joshua Tree Tour. Not only was U2 arriving to the position of being the biggest band on earth, but the concert itself occurred right after the Enniskillen bombing. They had already done the San Francisco show that is featured in Rattle and Ho-Hum but Vancouver was the next day after San Fran and they were still very fired up. I've said it a thousand times before, that show was like going to church. I've never been in a crowd that was SO with the band. Though the show was relatively simple - no enormous screens yet - it was the single best concert experience I've ever had.
April '92 at Pacific Coliseum. I still have the concert shirt. December wore it this past week to the latest concert. It was the last show of the Achtung Baby tour - which was the first leg of what was to turn into the ZooTV Tour. It was in effect the practise tour for ZooTV - they came back to Vancouver again for ZooTV. The Pixies opened for then (and were terrible... but they played the Commodore Ballroom the next night and promptly broke up... so I guess they were "good" for a band who hated each other.) Meanwhile the practise run was in full-bloom and it was a technical marvel the likes of which had never been seen. It was amazing. The overload of ideas and technology directly influenced the next Juanabees tour. Absolutely in the top 5 concerts I've ever seen.
May '15 (Only 3 days short of two years before this past concert.) The second night of The Innocence + Experience Tour. The technical aspects of this show were the most amazing thing I have ever seen. Totally amazing. The band were beginning to show the effect of being in their 50s and that stuck out to me more than I wish it did. They were STILL great, but let's just say that Bono was long past his days of hanging off the balcony rail. As much as I enjoyed the show I did ask myself if I would ever see them again, as I'm not keen of watching them age past being the consummate rock stars of my youth. Also one of the top 5 concerts ever.
When the Joshua Tree 30 year Anniversary tour was announced and Mumford & Sons were announced as the opener, I knew what my last U2 show had to be. Mumford is a favourite of my daughter, and Joshua Tree is my all time desert island disc. It had to be her first concert and my last (U2) concert. The symmetry was too good.
As much as I want to try to put aside the venue issues (which did not directly effect me) it is hard to ignore the effect it has on a crowd as a whole. Certainly if I am going to credit the energy that the emotional perfect storm stirred in the crowd in 1987, I can't simply discredit the effect of having a third of your crowd angry before they got to their places in the stadium. I also have to acknowledge that there is an effect of 30 years upon the audience. We've long since past the point where there the energy level of the audience is divided by those who stand for the whole show and those who stand only for the great songs. We are now at the point where the divisor is those who stand for the great songs and those who sit for the whole show. For the record - I stood for almost the whole thing - including absolutely all of the pre-encore set.
Looking at the set-up for the show it appeared at a glance as though the show was going to be less tech-heavy than the concerts since Achtung Baby, but not stripped down as far as the original tour. The poetry scrolling up the stage left side of the screen was a give-away that the backdrop was not as inert as it looked like in passing. There was also the now ubiquitous presence of the second stage which was not present in '87 (Also an Achtung Baby innovation).
It was hard not to be disappointed by Mumford and Sons. From where we were the portion of the screen where the band was projected was almost entirely obscured by a PA & lighting tower. This had the added effect of making me fear that the only portion of the back drop that would feature the feature act would also be obscured. Spoiler alert - it wasn't. But that in itself caused frustration - knowing in retrospect that the support act COULD have been shown on both sides of the stage. But instead we were forced to choose between watching Marcus Mumford's elbow in high definition at twice his standing height, or the actual Marcus Mumford... was that him?... it was hard to tell from our distance.
All these complaints aside... the reverence that Mumford has for U2 - a respect that caused a genuine headlining act to want to open for their heroes - was clearly defined by the glowing words used to express their gratitude. I probably only really know four Mumford songs well - they played all four of them and my six year old daughter was delighted to sing along - for once allowed to sing the F-word lyric in Little Lion Man. While there would not have been a big difference for us whether Mumford was really in the building playing or if they had just put some cut-outs on guide tracks on stage and played the album tracks, it was still great to share those songs live and dance with my kid. But this was truly just a warm up.
And that brings us to U2...
There is a mixed bag of good and less good to follow, and I am going to do the band and show a disservice by focusing mostly on the good first, while ending largely with my criticisms, but I want to start by saying something I've already said: This was a really good concert. U2 suffers by being measured against their own success. All three of my previous U2 shows rank in my top five all time concerts - they have made themselves a hard act to follow as I inevitably grade them on a different scale from almost anyone else. By being quite possibly the best arena/stadium act of all time (and definitely in the conversation about the subject) its almost inevitable that they would disappoint... and you could even argue that they always have after that first show took my number one all time spot and held onto it for (presumably) the rest of my life. But this show definitely makes my top ten concerts of all time and I have a bag filled with literally hundreds of event tickets I've saved up since the mid 80s.
So... what did I love?
The opening was great. Simple, but great. Building the presence of the band up one piece at a time - making me think of Stop Making Sense (John Demme, only having just passed away, reinforcing the idea for me) but accelerated over the opening of a single song. My kid's favourite U2 song is Sunday Bloody Sunday, so both of the night's acts blew their wad for her in their second and first songs respectively, but it was great to be able to sing along with her from the outset of the show.
I appreciated the structure of the show as a whole (but will get into quibbles in the second half of this), putting the songs from before the Joshua Tree first - a quick primer on "how we got to the Tree" - then the main attraction - then encoring with songs that followed their most significant album.
A Sort of Homecoming may have actually been the highlight of the show for me. I kind of forgot just how much I love that song (which they haven't played live for over a decade and a half).
I also really enjoyed the transition from the Pride into The Joshua Tree. Simple. Using the full length of the screen behind them to mimic the set-up of the original opening. Where the original used a giant cyclorama washed in red lights over a silhouetted Joshua Tree, the update used the (biggest high-definition single panel) screen to similar effect while the band gathered under the outstretched arms of a pin-lit tree while the opening sequence of Where the Streets Have No Name informed the audience - if they had not yet figured it out - that we were about to begin our journey through a re-invented version of one of the greatest albums in the history of rock and roll.
That screen... wow. Gorgeous... even if they seemed to be working a few bugs out of it - entire sections dropping out for several frames at a time. The vivid colour and the enormous seamless size of it... awesome. And relatively simple, given the shows U2 had staged in the past. The images they put up there... I am less excited about. While they were all visually arresting, the curation of them left me wanting... but I'll come back to that - because right now, I'm my emotional self who could not sit for as much as a note of the next eleven songs. Singing along with my kid and her Mom and her cousin - I think the only words I missed were those Bono had changed sing pressing vinyl. I appreciated an additional nod to the original tour in Bullet the Blue Sky wherein Bono revisited the hand-held lighting instrument lazzi seen in Rattle and Hum. The lady behind us was moved by my daughter climbing up into my arms for Running to Stand Still (a song I've used as a lullaby on many nights) and took a photo of us - not a great photo, but it will stake down that corner in my memory forever.
Those first five songs - side one - could hardly fail and they didn't. Flip the cassette and get into side two and things get a bit more challenging. The band had never played Red Hill Mining Town live before that night - so what were they going to do? This is where the reinvention was most evident - bringing the horns into the fore (both audibly and visually). While I doubt the song is suddenly going to take over as one of their concert classics, it felt like a small honour to be there when it finally debuted.
The next three tracks are the best that side two has to offer (IMHO In God's Country would be at home with the quality of the side one tracks). I doubt there were many casual U2 fans in the crowd - so the energy lost on the last two (and arguably least beloved) album cuts ought to have been relatively minor, this was after all what we came for. Bono squeezed in a costume change during an interstitial video clip (which I'll get back to) in order to visually quote the look he wore back in the late 80s - a black-broad brimmed hat and his glasses now absent while channeling his Mirror Ball Man preacher alter-ego from ZooTV. Exit's nearly impenetrable mid-song guitar bombast has grown over the years for me and Edge does a good job of representing in concert what he achieved with 48 tracks in a studio. Mother's of the Disappeared is Exit's tonal negative and more wound-down the experience than sent it off... but that is how the album is structured, so what can you do?
The encore was, by almost any standard, the performance's primary weakness. Bringing the energy back with Beautiful Day and Elevation was the right move (except... read on later), but then things kind of go a bit pear shaped energy-wise. Ultraviolet and One are both excellent songs in their own right, and the band has managed to get WAY more mileage out of Miss Sarajevo than can be believed, but the three of them together combined with an above average concentration of Bonostheletizing took the concert into a late-show sombre space that it never clawed its way out of. Bono's attempt to incite the audience into a chant that was both melodically and verbally more complex than could be pulled off by 50k people struck as being a combination of a mis-read of the crowd's engagement and (more so) their ability... which the front man of a band that has mastered the art of the stadium show should have long since figured out.
Before the show I had wondered if we might be treated to a road test of a song from the upcoming album and the good news was we were! The bad news was that it was another down-tempo song. The good news was that it picked up energy a bit by the end. The bad news was that it STILL wasn't enough energy... and that was the LAST SONG OF THE NIGHT! Structurally, I "get" it. We went from what had come before the Joshua Tree to the album itself to the songs that followed and then ended with the future yet to come - conceptually it works... but the implementation just can't stick the landing - certainly not with that song. Ironic that they plan to call the upcoming album Songs from Experience, 'cause that felt like a rookie mistake.
Which leads me to my biggest complaint outside of the energy of the back end of the encore... The set list is broken - which happens to be a direct cause of the energy issue. But it also breaks it's own unity. The entire show is in chronological order - except for Beautiful Day and Elevation. I appreciate that they need high energy songs coming out of Mothers of the Disappeared (which makes me ask the question 'why did they realise that, yet blow the last four songs?') but there are answers to that which don't betray the unity of chronological order. Come back for the encore with Even Better Than the Real Thing or Mysterious Ways - or both or do Desire then one of the above. Give us One and Ultraviolet as part of the Achtung Baby segment and put Beautiful Day and Elevation next to last - then we will probably not blink at the relative let down of The Little Things that Give You Away... and if that is still an issue either pick a better new song to go out on, or go full circle by closing with an original hit - either I Will Follow or Out of Control. (NOTE: In Seattle two nights later they did end with I Will Follow.) That adds three more songs to the set list, so something probably has to go - Miss Sarajevo, your time has come - I'd consider axing one of either Ultraviolet or One as well. (Though that would rob Bono and the boys their standard moments to speak up for refugees, women's rights, and HIV respectively if all three of the sombre songs were cut. Some people would think this a plus. I speak simply of the benefits the performance of the show would get from it - I accept that the political side of U2 is part of the territory and its part of why I've liked them since I was a teenager.)
Which leaves me with my quibbles with the imagery on that massive screen. Again its mostly a matter of unity. I'm not terribly fond with how on the nose much of it was... an unending desert highway for Where the Streets Have No Name, a big red moon for One Tree Hill being among the weakest choices. But as a whole the sequence of images set-up a unity which it gradually picked away at until it was absent. Which perhaps was the point - just perhaps. But briefly, first how did it do so? The opening - once the wall of red that echoed the original tour disappeared - gave us the aforementioned un-ending desert highway which presumably winds through Joshua Tree National Park in California all in black and white. Next song - more of Joshua Tree Park in black and white - as the camera searches... get it? DO YOU GET IT?!?! I Still Haven't Found... more on the nose imagery, though not quite as obvious... quite. But again we have Joshua Tree Park in black and white and a baseline for the unity is set. Next up With or Without You and we have.... more Joshua Tree, but now in saturated colour. A single shot (and a stunning one) taken from dawn to sunset. But now we've let go of the black and white - that's okay, it probably would have got boring soon anyhow and this shot would not have been anywhere near as remarkable without the colour. But the first step down the slippery slope has begun. Bullet the Blue Sky back to black and white, but now its the band with an exciting but extreme post-effect added in real time. Hey - it's the band - of course they are an acceptable image - it's their concert. I'd be mad if we didn't get to see them up on the screen. (And yes, there was more on the screen, but... regardless another step away fro the unity. Later songs - bring us to other desert locations - corrugated shacks with a semi-nekkid rope-trick doin' dancer who simultaneously paints us a US flag; a rather uninspired shot of a Salvation Army horn band presumably playing the horn portion of the new Red Hill arrangement (also in the realm of on the nose - "Hey, here's a visual representation of the thing that now stands out in this song.") That damned "moon is up over One Tree Hill" - GAH!!! Possibly these were all images from Joshua Tree still? Possibly the additional parts of the park that were used as single covers back in 1987? Certainly from similar landscapes, so that part of the unity remains.... Oh no... wait... For Exit first we break for the costume-change interstitial with footage from (I believe - please correct me if you know better) The Rainmaker... so that pretty much ends that unity - The Rainmaker, taking place in Kansas, MAY have been shot in Joshua Tree, seeing as its that much closer to Hollywood, but is still stretching the unity further... and it breaks entirely at Mothers of the Disappeared - yet another single shot of the eponymous mothers walking slowly forward through roscoe fog (in a controlled environment of a set) with candles... the mothers from Nicaragua and El Salvador as per the song - its... it just doesn't hold any longer no matter how hard I try to maintain an argument for unity.
So... perhaps that is the point. An eroding unity. The original name for The Joshua Tree album was The Two Americas. They have said that part of their reasoning for re-touring the album was that America has never been more "two" than it is now. So... an eroding unity...? Its a pretty big stretch. I'm more likely to believe that they just made some weak artistic choices. Better no unity than the false promise of one.
One more thing that elevated this experience. The night before the concert I met a British music journalist in a bar and had a great conversation about music, football (soccer), art and of course U2. It seemed to be a mutually enjoyable conversation and that was cemented by him texting me between acts about the show and then the next day wanting to meet for coffee for more debriefing of my post-show perspective as well as the reaction of my kid. He mentioned that he rarely considered the dramaturgical aspects of concerts with the depth that I got into (pretty much everything I said above) and that that was good value for him as well as getting a view from a local who had attended the '87 concert in the same venue. There was the vague promise on the Thursday that he would pass on a "thank" from me to The Edge in an interview he was scheduled for the afternoon of the show, but as it didn't come up on the day after and reading in some subtext around how his day went (including but not limited to: he too had some troubles entering even with a press pass) I suspect the interview did not happen... but I'm going to tell myself that I did have a very short one way discussion with The Edge by proxy.
Now with it all in the rearview, the eleven songs of The Joshua Tree was a magical tribute to the most important album of my life and their career, I will always cherish sharing it all with Jodie and December, I can't get A Sort of Homecoming out of my head, and briefly, I had a new friend who gave me two excellent conversations. It was a great show.