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U2’s The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 marks the band’s first foray into an anniversary-related or album-themed show. The band’s first of two nights at Chicago’s Soldier Field transcended mere nostalgia, however. The veteran Irish rockers shared the “desert songs” of 1987’s landmark The Joshua Tree album with a multi-generational assemblage of devoted fans as an act of spiritual communion.
Among the band’s touted strengths is an ability to collapse the distance between itself and massive crowds, leading them into transcendence. As a choir of tens of thousands joined the questing chorus of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with gospel fervor, there was no disputing the point. “We lift each other up in a church not made with hands,” said Bono later during a performance of Achtung Baby standout “One.”
The show had begun with drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s martial cadence for protest anthem “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Bono rededicated the song against still-burning turmoil “for Manchester, for London, for the streets of Chicago.” As the crowd zealously followed chants of “no more,” the moment was both pleading and defiant. “We will find common ground reaching for higher ground,” declared Bono during “Pride (In the Name of Love).” The message of unity espoused by the song’s subject, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., was an undercurrent running throughout the show.
But The Joshua Tree and its mythologized American vistas were the heart of the evening. “Where the Streets Have No Name,” was launched beneath a large screen displaying the alien terrain of California’s Joshua Tree National Park, immortalized in Anton Corbijn’s striking imagery. Guitarist The Edge created cascading sheets of chiming guitar, and bassist Adam Clayton dug deeply alongside Mullen’s driving tom-tom beat. Bono pushed to the vocal climax of “With or Without You” with all the soul he could muster, and then offered the moment back to the crowd. “These songs belong to you now,” he said. “Chicago, sing your heart out.”
The set featured material rarely played since the original tour supporting The Joshua Tree. “Red Hill Mining Town” made its Chicago debut at a mature age. Bono quipped, “After 30 years, we just figured out that song.”
The singer offered 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.” He then launched the blustery harp intro to the rootsy waltz “Trip Through Your Wires.”
Following a not-so-veiled dig at President Trump’s border wall on the big screen, Bono emerged in a black cowboy hat for “Exit.” He adopted the persona of a TV evangelist, reminiscent of his Zoo TV tour characters. “Put your hand against the screen,” he said. “We’ll fix this problem. Send me ten bucks. Don’t forget.”
Following a moving “Mothers of the Disappeared,” the band took their bows. “Thank you, that these desert songs meant as much to you as they meant to us,” said Bono. “For a great life, thank you.”
A generous encore began with the utopian dream of “Beautiful Day,” moving directly onto the euphoric “Elevation.” The Edge’s buzzsaw riff built toward a furious, slashing burst on his Gibson Explorer. Afterward, the band linked its music to a string of social causes.
“Miss Sarajevo” was recast as “Miss Syria,” humanizing the plight of embattled refugees through the persona of a hopeful 15-year-old Syrian girl interviewed on screen. Bono quoted “The New Colossus,” commonly associated with the Statue of Liberty as a welcoming beacon.
Bono thanked fans who had joined the ONE campaign, and praised the group’s grassroots effort to influence international policy. He also gave credit to American taxpayers for shouldering the largest burden in the struggle against AIDS.
The band finished with the pealing post-punk of “I Will Follow” from U2’s 1980 debut LP Boy. As the Edge bounded across the stage and tore furiously at his guitar strings, the years fell even further away than during The Joshua Tree set. The band exited for good, and left the crowd to anticipate a future tour likely to replace nostalgia with fresh material from the forthcoming Songs for Experience.
Drum riser photo by Kevin Mazur. Red silhouette photo by Danny North.