“What a dream to wake up in” mutters Bono into his microphone as the opening riff of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ swells to fill a packed Twickenham. His observation is apt – few bands as aged as U2 could hope to perform a 30-year old album with such energy, style, and biting modern relevance as Bono and co. have achieved with their The Joshua Tree album anniversary tour.
The concert opened in swaggering style, with the still razor-sharp drum intro to ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ beginning a medley of crowd-pleasing 80s hits including ‘New Year’s Day’ and the ever poignant ‘Pride’. Bono, now 57, showed no signs of age as his Cuban heels strutted up and down a tree-shaped stage jutting into a sold-out arena crowd.
As the centrepiece of the evening, The Joshua Tree itself simmered and roared, an inescapable reminder of just quite how good the pioneers of stadium rock were at their height. With anthemic choruses, as in ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, and moments of touching and raw emotion, as in ‘Running To Stand Still’, not a second of the album dragged. The Edge’s soaring guitar hooks and Larry Mullen Jnr.’s frenetic drumming delivered energy and passion most modern rock bands would struggle to match. Far from a pedestrian nostalgia trip, there was a sense of unrelenting urgency and belief which proved that U2 still deserves a place at the forefront of modern rock – they played the album like it had been released yesterday, and you believed it.
Visually, the gig was stunning. A 200-foot screen behind the stage played host to a series of hauntingly stark monochrome films by Anton Corbijn, the man behind the original 1987 album sleeve photo. There was a tangible sense of awe in the stadium as the camera rolled down a desolate road through the featureless Mojave desert as the juggernaut-like ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ built to it’s climax. Despite its obvious huge size, there was nothing bombastic about this strikingly effective visual component – haunting shots of America’s wilderness provided a perfectly understated backdrop to an album often called ‘cinematic’.
An Irish love letter to a sweeping, romantic American wilderness, The Joshua Tree is, as Bono noted in pre-tour interviews, still thematically as relevant in 2017 as it was 30 years ago. ‘Exit’, a brief track often lost at the end of side two, became a blistering attack on Donald Trump, while the heart-rending ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ paid tribute to the victims of cartel violence in Latin America.
Intending initially to play only two shows, one in Europe and one in America, the band were inspired by current world events and a desire to “honour this album that meant so much to us”, expanding their effort to a 51-date tour, with The Joshua Tree played in its entirety every night.
Bono’s ego is often a talking point, yet it seemed to take a backseat for the evening. The band, often stood close on a massive stage, played as one indivisible unit. Watching them, one can see why these four teenage mates have stayed together for so long with not even the slightest hiatus or lineup change – a feat so few have managed. Bono was in fact uncharacteristically humble, giving fans and long-serving crew alike credit for the successes of his career, while joking before ‘Trip Through Your Wires’ that he never properly learned to play the track’s spiky harmonica line.
The most overtly political statements were saved for the gig’s closing segment, a cavalcade of recent hits including ‘Vertigo’, ‘Beautiful Day’, and a heartfelt rendition of ‘Ultraviolet’ dedicated to women’s rights campaigners including Malala Yousafzai and murdered MP Jo Cox. ‘Miss Sarajevo’, originally recorded by U2 and Brian Eno before being popularised by George Michael, played in front of a film shot in a Syrian refugee camp – the lyrics are as resonant today as they were to Bosnia in the 90s.
By this point in the evening, U2 could do no wrong. Even the usually lukewarm ‘Elevation’ (home to moments of lyrical brilliance including “a mole digging in a hole”) soared. The show closed, as is traditional, with ‘One’, a sweeping ballad whose message of unity feels oh so timely in an increasingly fractured world.
If the aim was a bid for modern relevance, U2 could have done little more. They play with the drive of their teenage punk selves, which, coupled with the experience of a 40-year old band, provides a masterfully accomplished and impressive experience. An often divisive group, U2 have proven all naysayers wrong with a blistering, up-to-date return to form.