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U2’s Joshua Tree still thrills and challenges

U2 come out swinging. Having warmed up an already expectant crowd with The Waterboys’ guaranteed party starter ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ as their intro tape, the band launch into a chronological run of eight songs that have anchored their live performances for at least the past 30 years.

As Bono declares “there’s no place we’d rather be than here with you”, a thunderous ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ makes way for a jubilant ‘New Year’s Day’. ‘Bad’, the only bonafide stadium anthem to ever tackle heroin addiction, still manages to sound menacingly tragic and beautifully uplifting all at once, before the always rousing ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ soars even higher thanks to 55,000 unprompted backing vocalists (and a subtle but incisive lyric change to reflect the refugee crisis).

Moving from the joshua tree-shaped B stage, the quartet decamp to the foot of the 200 x 45 foot stadium-width video screen for the main event: 1987’s ‘The Joshua Tree’ LP performed in full and in sequence. A euphoric ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, usually reserved for the final stretch of a U2 set, turns out to be as invigorating as ever. Couching its universal message of longing and heartache in an uplifting gospel chorus, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is, as usual, a reason to rejoice.

‘With Or Without You’, which sees the world’s biggest band dwarfed by breathtaking mountain landscapes courtesy of album sleeve photographer Anton Corbijn, soars way above the striking visuals of Zabriskie Point to create a real sense of love and unity among a stadium of strangers. And ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ is still as jagged (and its scathing message of political greed still as relevant) as three decades ago.  

A haunting ‘Running To Stand Still’ ends the flood of seismic hits and, with its minimalist piano accompaniment from The Edge, brings unexpected humanity and intimacy to a show of this scale. So does ‘Red Hill Mining Town’, especially accompanied by Bono’s admission that they’ve only recently come to fully understand it. The album’s only song never performed live before this 30th anniversary tour, it’s been rearranged for keyboards but the crescendo is just as powerful without that distinctive arpeggiated guitar.

It’s back in full force on the gritty ‘In God’s Country’ and a wildly joyous ‘Trip Through Your Wires’, complete with raucous harmonica solo (“Made in Germany, perfected in the United States, butchered by an Irishman in London,” admits Bono). But where The Edge and the entire band, in fact, shine brightest tonight is on ‘One Tree Hill’. Buried deep on side two of the album, on this warm summer evening in London the aching hymn of praise dedicated to all the loved ones gone too soon stands among the best in the U2 canon.

Preceded by a clip of a 1950s TV show featuring a snake-oil salesman named Trump who promises to provide protection by building a wall, a blistering ‘Exit’ invites the outside world back in, before a magnificent ‘Mothers Of The Disappeared’ (sounding more urgent and immediate than the ethereal studio version) triumphantly wraps the main event.

So how do they follow that unrivalled opening salvo and the biggest album of their career? That song they sang with Pavarotti isn’t the obvious answer. And yet U2 begin their encore with the retitled ‘Miss Syria (Sarajevo)’. Accompanied by stark footage of ravaged neighbourhoods and young Syrian girl Omaima Thaer Hoshan talking of her dream to be a lawyer, the song originally written about the Bosnian war is suddenly as current (and moving) as it was in 1995.

Having given the audience something they need, U2 get back to the business of giving them what they want. The band’s biggest hits of the past 20 years ‘Beautiful Day’, ‘Vertigo’, and ‘Elevation’ are delivered (and received) with as much passion as the classics that opened the show. That emotion carries through to the rarely performed ‘Ultraviolet (Light My Way)’. Dedicated to the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, the hidden treasure from ‘Achtung Baby’ becomes a tribute to pioneering women.

As expected, ‘One’ transforms the stadium into a sea of lights but, bucking expectations yet again, the four men don’t quit while they’re ahead. Instead they gamble on a song most people haven’t heard before. Drawn from the upcoming ‘Songs Of Experience’ LP, ‘The Little Things That Give You Away’ turns out to be an instant classic, a piano ballad in the vein of ‘Every Breaking Wave’ that builds to a finale rivalling the scope of ‘City Of Blinding Lights’.

The final surprise is the return of support act Noel Gallagher for a rendition of the Oasis crowd pleaser ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ which, quite fittingly, sums up the Joshua Tree Tour 2017.

For all the criticism of U2 becoming a legacy act, this trek is no banal exercise in nostalgia. Masterfully balancing the expected and the unexpected, the band thrill and challenge their audience with songs that, regardless of when they were written, are as topical as they are powerful.

And, for all the epic staging, this is no soulless corporate gig. Between the grand gestures, Bono especially relishes the spontaneity of getting the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to his daughter, accidentally revealing that bass player Adam Clayton will soon be a father, freely admitting the band’s trepidation at revisiting some of ‘The Joshua Tree’ album, and sharing his obvious love of London, “the capital of the world”. That love, based on the volume of 55 000 roaring voices, is mutual.

U2
Twickenham Stadium
8 July 2017

  • This article originally appeared in RockShot Mag.

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