Concert Review: U2 Pay Homage to Chris Cornell at the Rose Bowl

U2 Joshua Tree 2017 tour
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“We feel at home,” Bono told the crowd early into the first of two weekend shows at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, quickly amending that to make it clear he meant in L.A., U2’s home away from Irish home. But before he clarified that, you might’ve momentarily leaped to the conclusion he meant the stadium setting itself, since the band slummed its way through mere arenas its last time around before settling on more massive gigs this time around as, well, a sort of homecoming.

The thing that’s bringing them to the dance this summer is the same thing that introduced them to stadiums in 1987: “The Joshua Tree,” one of the great rock albums of all time by many critical and popular measures. Playing a 30-year-old LP from start to finish may seem like a sop to conventional nostalgia for a group that’s been reluctant to give in too readily to laurels-resting, at least musically. Maybe they sensed it was their last chance to reach nightly concert audiences this vast; maybe they’re doing something this crowd-pleasing as a make-good for that whole iTunes kerfuffle. Whatever the rationale, U2 has actually found ways to make a “Joshua Tree” reprise feel more like opening a newspaper —albeit a print one — than an old high school yearbook.

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Saturday’s 140-minute show was not all about that one album, of course: The concert began and ended with U2 playing handfuls of songs from right before or after “Joshua Tree” on a modest B-stage that extended onto the stadium floor, with the 10 “Tree” songs performed in more grandiose fashion in the middle of the concert on the 200-foot-wide A-stage, with the aid of director Anton Corbijn’s widest widescreen cinematography yet. That secondary stage is in the shape of an exact reflection of the giant Joshua tree outline that is a primary focus of the main stage. Is this design meant to symbolize that everything else U2 has done exists in the shadow of “The Joshua Tree”? Probably not, but it does help demarcate the three portions of the show in ingenious fashion.

U2's Bono performs at the Rose Bowl on May 20.

 

Musically, they haven’t updated much about “The Joshua Tree” or any of the surrounding material. The only song pick with a distinctly different arrangement is “Red Hill Mining Town,” which recently got a Record Store Day 2017 remix with horns helping drive the new version. That element was even more pronounced on stage, with pre-recorded audio and video of a 15-piece Salvation Army band dominating the sound, to tremendous effect. The song sounded better than it ever had before… not that many fans have fresh memories of it, for, as Bono explained, this was the one song from that album U2 had never performed a single time in concert. How is that possible?

But there lies the benefit of the full-album show for hardcore aficionados: the chance to hear deep album cuts a veteran band might otherwise worry would send fair-weather fans out for a bathroom break. The four leadoff tracks from the front-loaded record have been staples of nearly every U2 show for three decades, and it’s hard to hear even a song as great as “Where the Streets Have No Name” as anything but perfunctory now. But “Exit,” “Trip Through Your Wires,” “In God’s Country,” and “Mothers of the Disappeared,” four tunes that were dropped from the band’s sets after the ‘80s? All the fresher for having mothball residue freshly wiped away.

U2 perform at the Rose Bowl on May 20, 2017.

If “The Joshua Tree” was collectively about anything in particular, it was about a bunch of Europeans falling in love with American music and culture, and then realizing: It’s complicated. Early in the 140-minute show, Bono recognized those complications while making a peace offering, saying the show was “for those letting go of and those holding onto the American dream,” and “for the party of Lincoln and the party of Kennedy,” meaning Republicans as well as Democrats: “You’re welcome here tonight.” But after that, the band did get in a comical dig at the president later on by preceding “Exit” with clips from the now famous 1958 episode of “Trackdown” that had a huckster named Trump bamboozling a Western town with some wall talk. In his speech, Bono got to play the politically magnanimous good cop, while the funny video played partisan bad cop.

The point is that Bono appears to be in a sweet, sentimental, celebratory mood. If there was a song he least had his heart in, it was “Bullet the Blue Sky,” the angriest “Joshua” track; he skipped the chance to embellish it with the kind of ferocious speech he used to work in. Instead, the singer used the introduction to “One” as a chance to congratulate America on doing the lion’s share of work in developing AIDS drugs, saying citizens should be pleased their tax dollars are at work saving lives. “Miss Sarajevo,” a less familiar encore song from the U2 side project Passengers, has now been turned into “Miss Syria,” with footage shot in a refugee camp in Jordan. The message about opening borders to the afflicted and helpless couldn’t have been more upfront, but there was no mention of presidential politics here, despite an obvious opportunity. Bono really does want conservatives at the band’s shows, apparently, and maybe not just in order to claim a sell-out.

The band even found some relevance where none had been intended when the tour opened just last week, in the drug- and depression-themed “Running to Stand Still,” which here was dedicated to the recently departed. “For the lion that was Chris Cornell, we send a prayer to his lioness,” Bono said, calling out the Soundgarden singer, who died of an apparent suicide early Thursday, and his wife and children. Before U2’s set, the PA was turned up for Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” prompting a sing-along and mass smartphone lightings.

Survival was on the band’s minds. (At least we can presume Bono spoke for everyone, since, as usual, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen remained mighty but mute.) “Here we still are. Here you still are. What a blessing,” Bono said, not needing to state that no other group with the same stature in rock history has survived with its original lineup intact for 35-plus years. And: “Let’s do this again in 2047.”

The group didn’t survive and thrive this long with a lack of awareness of what fans hope for (the compulsory addition of “Songs of Innocence” to everyone’s library notwithstanding). And what fans want at a show like this is affectionately retrospective bookends. U2 already had that in opening the shows each night with Larry Mullen walking on stage alone each night to begin drumming on “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a reverse image of the way he used to end shows pounding on “40.” But the group had miscalculated in the first few shows just how anticlimactic a show ending with “Miss Syria” and a brand new ballad, “The Little Things That Give You Away, would come off. So for the first Rose Bowl show, at least, they avoided any such letdown by moving “Bad” into the penultimate position and ending —apparently spontaneously — with their 1980 breakout, “I Will Follow.”

It was a less brave way to end the show, but a wiser one — and maybe prompted by local feelings, after all, as Bono recalled their “biggest thrill ever, to be in Los Angeles and turn on the radio and hear a song that sounds a little like this.” It fit the “Joshua Tree” theme after all, to revive the memory of four trifling Irish youth delivered into the arms of America.

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    1. Cameron says:

      The reason they never did Red Hill Mining Town live before, is because as its recorded it’s a difficult song to sing. I’m sure that’s why they added horns to it, also.

    2. Mel says:

      the show was amazing – the band never fails to deliver, however the venue itself was awful – the rows were literally on top of each other with very uncomfortable seating. the place needs a serious upgrade. we’d never go back.

    3. Melissa says:

      It was an amazing show. Until they got political.
      Hillary has NO business in a montage of women suffragists. She killed our men in Bengazi and can !@%& off… when has she EVER suffered for women’s rights?!?!!!? Screw you Bono… bulls!#@# get your head in order.

    4. S Godwin says:

      I enjoyed the nod to LA LA Land by putting in a bit of ‘City of Stars’. Especially fitting for the LA portion of the tour.

    5. Matt Person says:

      So I haven’t yet heard this discussed but it seems that it needs to be somewhere…. why wasn’t Hillary Clinton shown in the “Herstory” montage? Was there some bad blood?

    6. chameleonz says:

      LA U2’s home away from Irish home??
      What Irish home??They moved from ireland years ago to DODGE TAXES
      Bono is full of s++t he should shut up and donate 50% of what he has or just be a enternainer
      like CLOWN because thats what he is

    7. Gristle says:

      Love the band and the show but I found myself wondering as I stood in line to buy my wife a T-shirt if Bono realizes after the whole speech on woman’s sufferage and womens equality that his promoters are charging $5.00 more for a U2 womans T-shirt vice a men’s. I’m certain those 4 have impacted more then most in a lifetime…but that cut against the grain.

      • jackjamesla says:

        I bought my girlfriend a shirt…$45. I was quite disappointed in the quality. Very thin and once washed it shrank like.one of those shrinky-dink things from the 70s. Love U2 but they get up and talk about poverty and inequality and then charge $185 for a seat that was more than halfway across the stadium. Combine that with $8 for a bottle of water and $9 for a hot dog. When are these stars that are “for the people” actually going to make it so “the people” can afford 2 tickets instead of charging more than a weeks wages (after taxes) for someone working for minimum wage, even in a town where minimum wage is elevated above the rest of the country?

    8. Peter G. says:

      U2 is a great band and I will continue to support them. They stand for what they believe is right and I agree for the most part. A band that stands for acceptance, for example, how can you not support that? The music is great. The politics are well politics and some will always disagree. What’s the verdict on the concert? Good, Bad, So-So? The review mentions what the band did but was it good? Did the crowd leave happy?

      • S Godwin says:

        Great show as always! Going again tonight.

        • jackjamesla says:

          As far as the show itself? Amazing! I’ve worked in theatre and rock and roll for years as a designer and technician and I was blown away by the show. The members of U2 def still have all their chops too. Bono’s voice was clear and strong and the musicians rocked the shit out of the house!
          I may have griped earlier about the cost but once all’s said and done I’d pay it again.

    9. Great show and nice review…I like the ending and very good observations…great show and hopefully it brings more people together…maybe we don’t always or will ever agree but we can learn to live together as ONE.

    10. Lisa says:

      Bono should stick to his amazing music and stay out of American politics. I appreciate his passion and concern for the deprived but this was too much of a social studies lesson. I’ve seen U2 a handful of times, this was my least favorite. Maybe Bono should open up his castle in Ireland to house some refuges??

    11. sari says:

      That’s the thing: America has always done the lions share of most every charitable cause in the World; Catholic charities alone stand near the top. But we have a hateful group of malcontents that choose not see this but rather burn America to the ground if given a chance like they tried (are trying) in Berkeley California. Liberal schools attacvking and shouting down our US Constitution if it doesn’t fit their 3rd world delusions. Thanks to Bono for noticing the generous American heart.

      • CalAlum says:

        Please read up on what actually happened at Berkeley. When the hate monger Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak by Berkeley College Republicans (actually a large, outspoken, and active campus organization) , the school went to great lengths to provide security for the event and to defend his right to speak. This is the Berkeley way. There were Berkeley students who, as is also their right, held a peaceful protest. This is also something we see a lot of at Berkeley. I have been to many, many protests (mostly to cover them for the school newspaper) and never once saw an act of violence. Unfortunately, an outside, anarchist group wearing masks called Black Bloc attacked the campus, costing over $100,000 in damages. Many of these hooligans were arrested. Berkeley students are not into defacing their own campus. They just aren’t, and according to the police, not one Berkeley affiliated person was among the attackers. When Ann Coulter subsequently wanted to speak, Berkeley was not consulted. The University said that the day she was planning would need to be changed in order to provide the safest venue and high security. Ann Coulter declined to discuss possible dates and claimed that she was not allowed to speak. This is not accurate and not fair to a campus that highly values free speech. Even the Berkeley College Republicans pulled out of the event, because they too were concerned about safety. Berkeley is being used by extreme groups on both sides to prove points. Don’t fall for the BS.

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