“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.
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.
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.
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.