I didn’t believe all those music heads who told me to listen closer to The Joshua Tree.
I didn’t believe all my friends and mentors, who see U2 live every chance they get and rave about it for weeks after the fact.
I didn’t even believe Brian Oake, who I believe about most things, when he went on and on about the communal connection and spiritual awakening he experienced while watching Bono sing “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” to an adoring festival crowd, and how it was one of the greatest musical experiences of his life.
And I certainly didn’t believe Beck when he promised/warned us at the end of his opening set on Friday night that we were in for a night of “tears and joy.”
It’s not that I don’t trust all those people, or that I don’t know in my bones that live music can be revelatory. But in these tumultuous times it’s gotten so easy to feel cynical; to hunker down beneath layers of irony and anger and fear; to wonder whether anything really matters at all anymore. My mind swam through skeptical thoughts. What can a 30-year-old rock ‘n’ roll record do to protect us from the dangerous and hurtful world we’re living in now? What could one of the highest-grossing touring bands of all time know about suffering? And isn’t Bono supposed to be some kind of egomaniacal showboater or something? How could a few rehearsed platitudes from a celebrity entertainer make any kind of dent in this din?
I slid into the U.S. Bank Stadium at the last possible minute, expecting literally nothing from the night that was about to unfold in that gaping concrete compound that looms over the east end of downtown Minneapolis. Sitting way up in the top tier I’m pretty sure I literally tapped my toe waiting for the band to take the stage, arms crossed and eyebrow raised, wondering if the awful acoustics that mutilated Beck’s set would muck up U2’s performance as well. But then something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. It was a poem by Kate Hoyle — one of many that cascaded down the giant screen on stage, white typewriter font leaping out of the darkness — and one passage in particular stuck with me long after it had faded from view:
fear of falling heart first into the reality
that would shatter us human again
Suddenly it occurred to me that over 50,000 people were sitting in a concrete box together reading poetry, and my insides shifted. Not long after that the lights lowered and the crowd yelped, and one by one the band walked calmly onto the stage that jutted out into the main floor and got to work like heart surgeons: Larry Mullen, Jr. monitoring the pulse, Adam Clayton wielding the scalpel, the Edge cracking the chest wide open and Bono holding the whole pulsating, beating mess in his bare hands.
Not two minutes into “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” as Bono woefully sang “How long must we sing this song?,” the entire audience had leapt to its feet and was blinking stinging tears from its eyes, everyone seeming to come to the simultaneous realization that the pain of our history had endured, but that we, the hopeful rock ‘n’ roll romantics, had too. What was happening? How could these four men on their little tree-shaped stage with their simple bass, drums, guitar, and microphone, make a whole darkened and cavernous room come to life? I raised my hand to my cheek and it was slippery. I’d been shattered human again.
After another monstrous wave of “New Year’s Day,” Bono paused to address the stadium. “Our prayer tonight is to have one of those nights none of us ever forgets, where we hold on tight to some things and let go of others.” (He also praised the “beautiful sounding stadium,” the only untrue thing he said all night, though the Edge’s shimmering guitar parts seemed to not only transcend the stadium’s limitations but bend it to his will.) With a tilt of his head, Bono bellowed, “We need you!”
Only three songs into the set, U2 delivered one of the night’s biggest highlights, “Bad,” which prompted a sea of cell-phone lights. Toward the end of the song Bono briefly dipped into a refrain from Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” setting the stage for the next hour of lyrics from The Joshua Tree about this country’s promise and problems. “For the furious, for the faithful, sing with us” Bono beckoned during “(Pride) In the Name of Love.” “Those on the left, those on the right, those in between, sing. We’ll find common ground reaching for higher ground.”
Stanzas from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech scrolled across the screen, swelled, and scattered, and the band moved toward the larger main stage, resetting themselves into a pyramid. As they made their way through the songs from The Joshua Tree, the night’s focal point, stunning images of the Joshua Tree, California landscape flooded the screen, their music mirroring the expansive and staggering scenes rolling behind them. Songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” dug deep into the feeling of restless creative yearning that courses through the album, while “Bullet the Blue Sky” exposed the band’s claws, Bono’s voice straining as he sunk hooks into the injustice and hatred that lurk behind our country’s pretty scenery.
A reimagining of “Red Hill Mining Town” (which the band re-recorded for The Joshua Tree’s 30th anniversary) felt especially poignant, as Bono stressed the lines “We’re wounded by fear, injured in doubt” and “You keep me holding on… I’m still hanging on,” and a “flip to side two on your Joshua Tree cassette” brought some much-needed quieter moments, giving the room a chance to breathe and lose themselves in the wash of sound.
After running through the album, the band returned for an extended encore that included several of their more upbeat, anthemic later-career songs, many of which were spliced with Prince lyrics; lines from “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” showed up in “Beautiful Day,” the chorus of “Let’s Go Crazy” was woven into the end of “Vertigo,” and in a moving final farewell, Bono sang “I only want to see you laughing in the purple rain” at the end of “One.”
“Let’s dedicate this evening to the memory eternal of Prince Rogers Nelson,” Bono said, to the elation of the crowd. Seeming hesitant to leave the stage, he also remembered back to U2’s first show in Minneapolis in the early ’80s, recalling it as Uncle Sam’s (the venue was known as Sam’s when they played it for the first time in 1981, and would rebrand as First Avenue a few months after their show). “It’s always been going off here,” he said, with a final wave to the crowd. And with that, the room returned to dark concrete and a sea of full hearts were sent beating into the night.
Sunday Bloody Sunday
New Year’s Day
Bad (with pieces of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”)
(Pride) In the Name of Love
The Joshua Tree:
Where the Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
With Or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Running to Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
In God’s Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Mothers of the Disappeared
Beautiful Day (with lines from “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”
Vertigo (with “Let’s Go Crazy”)
One (with “Purple Rain”)
Photos by Nate Ryan: