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Live Review and Gallery: U2 at Soldier Field

| June 5, 2017

The Joshua Tree Tour 2017
Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
Saturday, June 3, 2017
Reviewed by Jeff Elbel

Veteran Irish rockers U2 took a detour from the road to their upcoming Songs of Experience project in order to revisit the “desert songs” that put them firmly on the map. The band’s first night at Soldier Field for Joshua Tree Tour 2017 found the quartet in a rare reflective mood, traveling through the summer months without a new album to promote. It’s also the first time since possibly the early days of Boy and October that the band has featured a full album’s material.

The show began as Larry Mullen Jr. marched the darkened catwalk to a small joshua tree-shaped stage extending into the crowd as a shadow of the larger silhouette looming over the main stage. Mullen’s machine-gun cadence of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was soon accompanied by his bandmates. Bono repurposed the song from its origin as a protest anthem against violence in Northern Island, dedicating the song against still-burning turmoil “for Manchester, for London, for the streets of Chicago.” The eager crowd joined chants of “No more!”

“Whatever it is we don’t need, we let it go at a rock show,” said Bono, introducing the heartbreaking tale of addiction “Bad.” He raised his palms to the sky as he sang the plaintive cry of “surrender,” joined by a sea of hands. Another song from The Unforgettable Fire followed, as “Pride (In the Name of Love)” renewed the band’s enduring tribute to civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. “We will find common ground reaching for higher ground,” declared Bono.

The gospel fervor reached fever pitch as the band moved to the big stage for its whirl through The Joshua Tree, beginning with “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Bassist Adam Clayton dug deep to lock into Mullen’s driving tom-tom beat, as guitarist the Edge created cascading sheets of chiming guitar. The questing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was next. “Take it to church now,” said Bono as the stadium-sized choir sang along.

Bono pushed to the vocal climax of “With or Without You” for all he was worth, and then offered the moment back to the crowd. “These songs belong to you now,” he said. “Chicago, sing your heart out.”
A 30-year-old bit of theater was resurrected during the dire rhythm and angular Irish funk-punk of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” as Bono raised a spotlight over his head to shine onto the Edge. The imagery was reminiscent of the striking photo captured during the first Joshua Tree tour and used as the cover for Rattle and Hum. With haunting harmonica by Bono, “Running to Stand Still” was dedicated to late Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell.

Synched to footage of the Salvation Army Brass Band, deep cut “Red Hill Mining Town” saw its Chicago debut. “After 30 years, we just figured out that song,” said Bono. “Sometimes a song seems newly relevant,” said Bono while introducing “In God’s Country.” Afterward, he added, “All over the world, it seems like that right now. Parched earth.”

Another lesser-played cut from The Joshua Tree proved durable, as the band played the Irish folk-meets-American country waltz “Trip Through Your Wires.” Bono introduced the song with thanks to America for providing refuge to the people of Ireland. He followed with a wisecrack, saying, “We’re gonna get thrown out of your country for bad harmonica playing these days, and that will be fair enough.”
Following a not-so-veiled dig at Donald Trump’s border wall on the big screen, Bono emerged in a black cowboy hat for “Exit.” He adopted the persona of a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing TV evangelist, reminiscent of his character work on the Zoo TV tour. “Put your hand against the screen,” he said. “We’ll fix this problem. Ten dollars. Send me ten bucks. Don’t forget.”

“Mothers of the Disappeared” was deeply affecting, and seemed to pull at similar strings of emotional protest to Peter Gabriel’s “Biko.” Given the partnership between U2, Gabriel and Amnesty International that first flourished in the ’80s, it was a natural point of connection. Afterward, the band waved thanks to the massive crowd before leaving the stage. “Thank you, that these desert songs meant as much to you as they meant to us,” said Bono. “For a great life, thank you.”

The generous encore set began with “Beautiful Day,” imagining a glorious time “when human rights drown out human wrongs.” The Edge’s buzzsaw guitar heralded the euphoric “Elevation,” climaxing in a furious, slashing riff on his Gibson Explorer. Afterward, the band began in earnest to link its music to social and political concerns.

The show’s most overtly political moment came when “Miss Sarajevo” was recast as “Miss Syria.” A film clip introduced a 15-year-old Syrian girl. “Imagine there’s a stadium, and it’s a very big stadium filled with thousands of people,” said a narrator. “What would you like to say to them?” The girl responded, saying, “I want to be happy, and I want you to be happy.” As Luciano Pavarotti’s recorded voice filled the air with operatic flair, the band played before footage of devastation in Syria and a refugee camp in Jordan. Amid the chaos were scenes of children still smiling and people striving to hold each other up or simply get on with life. Bono concluded by quoting “The New Colossus,” commonly associated with the Statue of Liberty as a beacon of welcome to the downtrodden.

“Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” from Achtung Baby was dedicated “to the great women in our lives,” said Bono, who continued to praise people “who stood up or sat down for their rights, persisted, and resisted.” A pantheon of inspirational women’s names and faces scrolled across the large screen throughout the song, including Maya Angelou, Sojourner Truth, Patti Smith, Grace Jones, Michelle Obama, Russian punk trio Pussy Riot, Rosa Parks, Ellen DeGeneres and many more.

From the small stage, Bono spoke about the importance of grassroots unity and praised the eight-million-strong ONE campaign for making a difference in international policy. He also thanked American taxpayers for making substantial headway in the fight against AIDS. Clayton joined Bono as the pair performed “One” shoulder to shoulder, facing back to the Edge and Mullen on the big stage. “We lift each other up in a church not made with hands,” declared Bono.

“This is where we came in,” said Bono, as the band lashed into “I Will Follow” from U2’s 1980 album Boy. The Edge hopped and bounded with the pealing post-punk riff, and the years fell away even further than they did during The Joshua Tree segment. The band then said goodnight for good, and left the crowd to anticipate a future tour likely to replace nostalgia with new music.

Note: A Super Deluxe version of The Joshua Tree has been released in time for the album’s 30th anniversary and tour. Vinyl and CD sets include the original album, a 17-song 1987 concert from Madison Square Garden, a book of The Edge’s photography, b-sides, and remixes by band associates including Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite and Flood. Outtakes include promising explorations like “Rise Up” and oddities like the Enoesque “Drunk Chicken” with beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s recitation of his “America.”

– Review by Jeff Elbel; Photos by Curt Baran

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