U2 at the Rose Bowl
The 262-mile road trip from Las Vegas to Pasadena, CA includes a stretch along the hip of Mojave National Preserve. With all due respect to the impeccably attired Lumineers, the real opening act for U2’s return to the Rose Bowl was the miles upon miles of Joshua trees stretching around us as my wife and I descended into California to celebrate the 30th anniversary of U2’s landmark album with 100,000 or so friends.
After years of keeping their formidable legacy at arm’s length, U2 have finally taken the time to fully embrace The Joshua Tree, the album that elevated them to the largest stages in the world. After staging some of the largest, most elaborate tours in rock-n-roll history, the current U2 trek leans on the music for impact.
Walking casually down to the Joshua tree shaped stage that stretches into the crowd, Larry Mullen Jr. goes almost unnoticed as he takes his place behind the drums. With a quick flip of his wrist, the familiar military march of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” erupts from the snare drum and the rest of the band emerges, ready to once again earn the right to play before sold-out stadiums. The opening run of songs pulled from War and The Unforgettable Fire effectively set the mood as the band plays unadorned by special effects, huddled together as if the Rose Bowl is a tiny club in Ireland.
The gap between the Reagan years and today’s headlines suddenly feels too close for comfort, something the band intended by resurrecting the album
Before the disco lights of Pop and the radio friendly staples from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, U2 seized our attention in the 80s and taught us the music can inspire change whether personal, political, or social. Much maligned over the last few decades for their altruistic ways, the band’s integrity never wavered and the focus of the show highlights the youthful urgency and strong ideals of their earliest work. As they finish the four-song “club” set with “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, the stadium erupts in one voice as the video screen comes to life to highlight the key words from Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I Have A Dream” speech.
The band then walks up the ramp to a stage stretching 200-feet across the football stadium as the video wall morphs into the Joshua tree. Performing any album of such significance presents its challenges and for U2, the biggest question is how to present an album where the three most popular songs are the first three on the album. Never a band lacking for confidence, U2 choose to present The Joshua Tree in order and after the excitement of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, the band’s two #1 singles (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You”) are, surprisingly, the biggest lull in the set. It is “Bullet the Blue Sky” that brings chills to necks as The Edge rips open a wall of distortion and turns the stage into a war zone. As the guitar solo starts to subside, the steady pulse of Mullen Jr.’s drums pushes on towards the next war. The gap between the Reagan years and today’s headlines suddenly feels too close for comfort, something the band intended by resurrecting the album.
A poignant “Running To Stand Still” (dedicated to Chris Cornell) eases the set into the lesser known material for casual fans, of which there seems to be only a few in a sea of faithful. As “In God’s Country” and “One Tree Hill” unfold beautifully, the video production by Anton Corbijn, who helped shape the iconic imagery of The Joshua Tree in 1987, enhances the music with wide sweeping horizons of desert landscapes. As stripped back as the show feels, the band still utilizes the largest screen ever used at a rock concert and Corbijn makes excellent use of it throughout the set.
On “Trip Through Your Wires”, a cowgirl carrying her paintbrush like a pistol slaps an American flag on a crumbling shack sitting alone in the desert and gazes at it with a sense of pride. It’s a powerful image that encapsulates our national spirit. More than anything else, The Joshua Tree showed us what America, full of beautiful contradictions in its people and landscape, looks like through the eyes of an Irish band, and ultimately, the rest of the world. After a clip about a con man named Trump from the 1950s show Trackdown, Bono struts down the stage ramp in a preacher’s hat seemingly possessed by the spirits. The band delivers “Exit” as a psychedelic tornado that slowly unhinges his jerky movements as the song spins forward. Invigorated by a new villain, Bono’s maniacal performance of the song is the highlight of the tour and proves just how relevant the material is in 2017.
Lest we forget that U2 continued filling stadiums long after The Joshua Tree, the encore opens with “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation” as the mass of humanity stretching across the Rose Bowl field jumps in time. After the obligatory “One” and some social commentary, the band looks backwards yet again with “Bad” before closing the night with the first song on their debut album. Finishing the night at the very beginning of U2 sends a message that, after all the success, the band’s spirit remains unchanged. They may be playing for a lot more people and staying in nicer hotels but U2 still possess the same passion as when they wrote “I Will Follow”. Each night, they take the stage with the belief that the right song played at the right time can spark a revolution of love and hope in the world. Last night, they set some of those sparks flying in Pasadena.