Sometimes it takes an outsider to show America just how beautiful it can be.
And sometimes it takes that same outsider to show us our warts.
Bono – of the legendary Irish rock band U2 – accomplished both of those things and more on June 4, 2017, during the second of two concerts here in Chicago commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the band’s landmark The Joshua Tree album, itself an examination of the “two Americas” from a foreigner’s perspective: the “mythical” one and the “real” one, as the band’s members have famously recalled.
Bono pulled few political and social punches during and in-between songs from the band’s landmark album, which sat at Number One in Billboard 30 years ago this week and which is approaching 30 million copies sold worldwide.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band U2 – and Bono in particular – have always been known for embodying what it means to be “woke” today: social consciousness, political protest and being a champion for the underrepresented. It’s also a fact that, despite all his good deeds, Bono has also been accused of being paternalistic and condescending in all of his preaching about the world’s ills and America’s role in them.
Still, anyone attending this show and not expecting to hear at least a social commentary about today’s United States has probably been living under a rock for the past three or four decades…at least when it comes to U2’s body of work. After all, the album The Joshua Tree – itself recorded during the Ronald Reagan era – was partly inspired by the duality of America’s natural beauty and its dubious standing on the world stage, as seen by others.
Yet, in 2017’s even more polarized America, I questioned how receptive the sold-out crowd of nearly 60,000 mostly white, mostly middle-aged (and largely American) concert-goers would be to Bono’s messages of racial inclusiveness, world humanitarianism and resistance to “those in power.” I figured it was primarily this demographic of people who only seven months earlier had elected the current U.S. president, even if Chicago and Illinois did not.
Perhaps keenly aware that this audience likely included a high number of supporters of the current regime in America, Bono and his longtime band mates – The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. – likely toned down the liberal messaging somewhat, alternating between exclaims of “America, you’re beautiful!” and slightly veiled, but still non-flattering references to POTUS No. 45.
The only direct mention of Donald Trump’s name was in a fictional western skit leading up to the song “Exit,” the tenth of eleven tracks on The Joshua Tree. In the song’s videotaped prelude, a menacing-looking character bearing the president’s last name (although looking more like Hitler than The Donald) spoke to a crowd of onlookers about building a wall around their homes that “no one could penetrate,” so he could “save them.”
After a scuffle breaks out when one of the crowd members calls this “Trump” a liar, the scene morphs into two opposing hands against a pitch-black backdrop with the tattooed words “love” and “hate” spelled out on each hand’s fingers before they’re clinched into fists and the band launches into the slow-building rocker that is “Exit.”
While U2 didn’t dwell on names, it certainly wasn’t short on hard-hitting messages, which were mostly delivered by the larger-than-life, high-definition video screen setup behind the stage that spanned the width of Soldier Field’s north end-zone.
This brilliant screen is where that “Trump” skit had played out and where U2 displayed captivating images of natural American landscapes (similar to those that inspired the original album cover’s artwork in 1987), ethnically diverse people from all over the world, and the band itself as they played The Joshua Tree’s eleven tracks in the original order from start to finish.
Oh, and speaking of the music, there was also that.
It would have been easy to forget that this concert was a celebration of that landmark album’s 30th anniversary, what with all the graphic scenes playing out on the screen behind the band – some of which overshadowed the music – and with the eleven non-album songs that U2 played during the prelude to the album and during the encore afterwards.
The concert started with the prelude: four songs that were played on a smaller stage that branched out from the main one and into the audience. The tunes included three pre-Joshua Tree classics: “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” the latter being the band’s 1984 tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
After that song, Bono alluded to King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech by mentioning the Civil Rights leader’s name and proclaiming “The dream is still alive here in Chicago!” The crowd cheered as the huge screen on the main stage was illuminated for the first time – revealing a bright red backdrop with a large, lone silhouetted Joshua Tree spanning the height of the screen.
That screen, with its many displayed video and still images, would serve as the visual backdrop to all of The Joshua Tree’s songs.
And musically, you couldn’t ask for much more in a live reenactment of an album of The Joshua Tree’s caliber. Perhaps out of knowing that this was the collection that had set them for life, the band’s four members rewarded it with the finest of tributes.
The Edge’s guitar work was extraordinarily on point with what he used for the original. Mullen’s drumming captured all the excitement that had paced the 1987 album. Clayton’s bass guitar remained subdued but still essential to the set’s identity.
And Bono’s vocals, while at times fatigued and showing signs of aging, were still strong and emotionally compelling. To acknowledge the three decades that have passed since its original release, the band noticeably lowered the key for some songs, most notably the gospel-influenced “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” on which Bono’s original, youthfully high register was replaced by the 56-year-old singer’s now-lower chops.
One by one, U2 played the album’s eleven songs, beginning with “Where the Streets Have No Name” and ending with “Mothers of the Disappeared.” In between, album tracks like “Red Hill Mining Town” and “Trip Through Your Wires” got noteworthy treatments. “Red Hill” featured a poignant video of a Salvation Army band playing the song’s brass parts (which were originally recorded with a synthesizer), while the country-tinged “Wires” featured images of the American heartland and a woman proudly painting the American Flag on a barn wall while, in a split screen, another twirls a lasso.
After playing the complete Joshua Tree, U2 exited the stage and returned minutes later for the encore. They played seven more songs (for a total of 22), beginning with “Miss Sarajevo,” a tune the band recorded in 1995 about the war-torn country of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the song originally recorded under the pseudonym Passengers with guest vocalist Luciano Pavarotti). Under the likely context of “same war, different country,” the video accompanying this track depicted a young Syrian woman who spoke of her wish to come to America, while images of her own war-ravaged nation appeared throughout.
The choice of a Syrian woman to represent “Miss Sarajevo” in 2017 was no accident when considering a currently proposed U.S. travel ban that includes the predominantly Muslim nation.
But the thinly veiled “hits” didn’t stop there. Next was U2’s “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” a song Bono introduced with perhaps the most in-your-face moment of the night.
Before playing the song, the singer gave a jarring (if not rambling) monologue that spoke about how nothing makes an elected official more nervous than millions of people resisting.
He then suddenly shifted to the subject of HIV/AIDS and how U.S. tax dollars have helped prevent it from being an automatic death sentence for millions around the globe. He declared that U.S. citizens are “AIDS Activists just by paying your taxes!”
“You all are AIDS activists!” he repeatedly asserted in his semi-mocking, yet paternalistic tone, lest those who shun or don’t willingly champion HIV/AIDS causes forget.
While his message may not have sat well with everyone in the venue, the premise itself was clear: America shouldn’t forget its earlier humanitarian standing in the world, regardless of who is running the show now. (Note: aside from the proposed American Healthcare Act, the new president’s proposed budget reportedly includes $186M in cuts to HIV/AIDS treatment and research.)
Bono’s world-view healthcare lesson behind him, the band then embarked on what was perhaps the most spectacular tribute of all…
As the band played “Ultraviolet,” a colorful montage featuring images of historic women was projected from the large screen that was now split into five equal sections.
Women’s issues – and one woman in particular – took a beating during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, so this was likely U2’s way of revisiting “herstory,” as the large screen displayed dozens of trailblazing women, four and five at a time.
I found it interesting that the first ten or so of these women were black, including Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis, Rosa Parks, Bell Hooks, Wangari Maathai, Iesha Evans and Michelle Obama (whose image received cheers when it appeared).
Others who populated this tribute included Maya Angelou, Rosetta Tharpe, Emma Goldman, Mary Wollstonecraft, Emily Wilding Davison, Patti Smith and Gloria Steinem along with nods to several famous women’s movements, including suffragette protests, the match girls strike (of 1888 in London) and the group Pussy Riot (who famously slammed Trump in a song last year).
Notably absent from this tribute was Hillary Clinton, who is still considered a trailblazer by many, despite her polarizing campaign loss in 2016.
Bono and his cohorts then finished the encore set with their classic ballad “One,” the uplifting “Beautiful Day,” the ubiquitous and giddy “Elevation,” and, finally, “The Little Things That Give You Away.”
That last song was preceded by the band’s impromptu performance of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” from his classic album with the Wailers, Exodus, which itself celebrated a 40th anniversary last weekend. It was yet another fitting and timely tribute to a fallen star, with Bono summoning the crowd to sing the familiar, soothing chorus, “every little thing…gonna be alright.”
And then, following “The Little Things That Give You Away,” the show was over…
As we made our way out of the stadium – itself an hour-long adventure – I kept thinking about what I had just witnessed with that spectacular stage and screen, and U2’s powerfully interwoven messages of hope, love, peace, inclusion and resistance.
Oh, and the music – particularly The Joshua Tree – the album that was played to near perfection by a band whose core members have been together for 40-plus years.
No wonder they’re the second-largest concert-grossing rock band in history, behind The Rolling Stones. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. definitely lived up to their reputation as the world’s greatest band of a generation on this stop.
And America, or at least this slice of it, got a reminder of just how “great” it could be…at least through the eyes of those four Irish outsiders on a Sunday night in Chicago.
U2’s Chicago Set List (June 4, 2017):
1. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
2. “New Year’s Day”
4. “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”
The Joshua Tree:
1. “Where the Streets Have No Name”
2. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
3. “With or Without You”
4. “Bullet the Blue Sky”
5. “Running to Stand Still”
6. “Red Hill Mining Town”
7. “In God’s Country”
8. “Trip Through Your Wires”
9. “One Tree Hill”
11. “Mothers of the Disappeared”
1. “Miss Sarajevo”
2. “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
4. “Beautiful Day”
6. “Three Little Birds” (Marley; impromptu cover)
7. “The Little Things That Give You Away”