In a close competition, Irish band U2 edged out Roger Waters as the top 2017 concert in Kentucky. Both artists share distinguished histories of political commentary and used their stages as platforms to spotlight current world disorder, raising these two performances over others as they became larger in meaning than mere concerts. Each carried a heft, for the success and enduring popularity of the music involved, but additionally for the dedication to social consciousness these artists intertwined in their sets.
Both were visually stunning and saw the performers utilize multimedia content and current events to bring a modern relevancy to provocative lyrics written decades before. But U2 remains a band in whole, albeit younger in performance years than Waters and his Pink Floyd mates, and were able to bring a hopefulness instead of only venom to their message and curated setlist performed in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on June 16, 2017.
This was the first time U2 played Louisville since opening for the J. Geils Band in 1982, at the now defunct Louisville Gardens.
They arrived back in The Ville on a beautiful Friday evening touring behind the 30th anniversary of their peak musical accomplishment, The Joshua Tree. Released in March 1987, the disc came as U2 had made a name for themselves through their protest music and songs of marginalization found on Boy, October and War. Their 1984 release, The Unforgettable Fire saw the band smooth its edge, polish what became a signature sound and widen its political lens through which the band viewed the world.
This earned them credence among the idealistic college student set, who were living through turbulent times. Reagan was president, and splashed across the news were stories of Iran-Contra, Reaganomics, the War on Drugs, AIDS, and Apartheid in South Africa.
Revolution was in the air and U2 spoke a language of protest. With their outspoken support of Amnesty International, and a headlining role on the Conspiracy of Hope benefit concert tour, there was a poignancy to this band that gave people rallying against social inequalities an ally in the fight against the repressive politics of the governing party.
The music scene was also in transition. New wave from the early 80s had matured, and alt-rock had a better hold through bands like R.E.M., The Smiths, Love and Rockets, Depeche Mode and the Pixies, but hair metal was at its zenith and a schlocky brand of synth-pop ruled the airwaves.
For U2 in 1987, its path was obscured by monster albums from INXS (Kick), Def Leppard (Hysteria), George Michael (Faith), Guns N Roses (Appetite for Destruction), and Michael Jackson (Bad). Oddly, it mattered not. When The Joshua Tree hit it took this little Irish band and launched them from successful to superstardom.
These other popular bands had familiar established sounds. U2 was different. The layered waves of echo and signature delay from The Edge’s chiming, syncopated guitar were like no other. Combine this with the piercingly personal lyrics, Bono’s exotic Irish brogue and a rock star fashion upgrade – it transformed this renegade band into not just rock gods, but also sexual icons.
The Joshua Tree went to number one in more than 20 countries including the United Kingdom, where it was certified platinum in 48 hours, making it the fastest seller in British chart history. Both With or Without You and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For hit No. 1 in the U.S. The rapid success earned a spot on the cover of TIME magazine for U2.
There was an honesty and visual brand of story telling that came across in The Joshua Tree, stripping away the rhetoric from America, and on one hand showed the harm of U.S. foreign policy from an international interpretation, but also represented the allure and freedom that makes America so unique.
Yet it was not the music alone that made this record special, but the way in which Bono delivered his vocals with this brooding evocation. There is a preciseness and inflection in his singing, stretched out, with poignant pauses between versus or words, ending in a gasp, like what one might whisper to a lover, which created a sexual tension.
The members had become desirable, and were perceived as liberators, a dangerous band of disruptors from a far away land. People forget, there was no Internet in 1987, no iTunes or YouTube. Evidence of U2’s prowess playing live was hard to come by, so when one saw them in person with Bono’s long hair, cowboy hat and black leather vest over a shirtless torso, the sexual atmosphere was dripping, akin to what Jim Morrison brought to audiences when he performed with The Doors.
It’s funny, but of all those artists with big releases from 1987, only U2 had one that resonated in such a fashion that 30 years later a full-on world tour could be built around celebrating its anniversary. It’s with this as a backdrop that the band made its return to Derby City.
From the vantage point of the open floor inside Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, the first thing that jumped out was the enormous four-story stage backdrop, golden in color, decorated with a silver-hued Joshua Tree, its branches stretching above the top border to provide a silhouette of this iconic symbol from the record soon to be celebrated. Absent was any extravagant stage clutter.
A constant feed of notable quotes and relevant poems scrolled across the far right corner of the video screen. Opening act OneRepublic had finished its set, and a soundtrack played to the stadium as concertgoers scurried to secure liquid refreshments.
As the Waterboys’ song, The Whole of the Moon faded Larry Mullen Jr. casually strolled down a catwalk leading from the main stage to the more intimate B-stage and took a seat at his drum kit, commencing to bang out the martial beat of U2’s cease-fire anthem Sunday Bloody Sunday. The Edge, Bono, and Adam Clayton followed Mullen individually to the Joshua Tree-shaped stage that jutted out into the crowd, exposing the band to the surrounding mass of jubilant fans.
This was followed by New Year’s Day also from 1983’s War. It took me a few songs to find my footing with the band. You could feel the age on these musicians and the songs. The urgency that accompanied them back in the day was lost. The next two selections, Bad and Pride (In the Name of Love), from 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, offered sounder footing going forward. Sadly, a song like Bad, with its message of sorrow concerning heroin overdose, never goes out of style, and felt immediate considering America’s growing opioid epidemic, something Kentucky knows all too well.
To U2’s credit they kept the special effects off for these first four tracks. These served as a reminder to what made U2 and where the band was creatively leading up to the recording of their seminal achievement. Now with the evening sky having slid into darkness and a symbiotic relationship established with the crowd, the band kicked off its anniversary recitation of The Joshua Tree.
The Edge ripped into the opening riff of Where the Streets Have No Name as the immense video screen roared to life, dropping concertgoers onto a desolate desert highway that rolled past in eye-popping clarity. The resolution was impeccable. I later learned this was a 7.6K video screen, 200 ft. x 45 ft., the largest and highest resolution screen ever used on a concert tour.
As the show shifted into this multimedia event, the juxtaposition of choreographed visual content on this undulating screen illustrated the lyrics through a modern context, if often of an incongruous nature, renewing a sense of meaning to this classic 1987 work.
Scenes from Death Valley accompanied the track With or Without You, while men and women of various ages were seen trying on army helmets before an American flag as Bullet the Blue Sky cried out.
One of my personal favorites is the side one closer, Red Hill Mining Town. This was presented in a slightly muted fashion, as instead of the distressed guitar work The Edge customarily provides, piano was substituted, along with a layer of horns that came courtesy of a Salvation Army brass band looped in on the accompanying video package.
This resulted in a softer portrayal of this gripping song, but its lyrical power could not be robbed. In fact the chorus alone is emblematic of why U2 is such a powerful live act. To see Bono stepping into the microphone, hands at his sides with outstretched fingers, rising onto tiptoes to conjure the emotion to hit the chorus:
I’m hanging on/You’re all that’s left to hold on to/I’m still waiting/I’m hanging on/You’re all that’s left to hold on to.
The back side of The Joshua Tree is less well-known, and slowed the evening down expectedly, but tracks like One Tree Hill and Mothers of the Disappeared have a quiet power. It was refreshing to hear these selections, preserved from their lack of overplay on FM radio, get the full stadium treatment.
Exit was of particular note, as Bono donned a black suit and preacher’s hat to adopt this “Shadow Man” figure. The video package prior to the song showed a clip of an old western where a con-man named “Trump” visits a town and promises he can build a wall around them to protect the settlers from a supposed apocalypse. It was another offhand way U2 chose to depict their disagreement with the current president’s politics without taking him on directly.
The encore was a set of songs from the third act of U2’s career, about hope and the plight of women. This was a continuation of an overarching theme to the show, of preaching positivity and highlighting subjects like the environment, immigration, human rights, and the subjugation of women, all of which are widely recognized as being under attack from the Trump administration.
This message was more subtle than the direct jabs taken at Trump by Roger Waters in his performance at KFC Yum! Center in May, but the two concerts shared a similar result. Open disgruntlement was displayed from Trump loyalists when confronted with uncomfortable truths about the president and current political events, causing some to leave in disgust.
There definitely was a feel that U2 believed the time was right to see a female leader take charge and help guide our masses through these troubled times. The song Miss Sarajevo offered a chance to celebrate 15-year old Syrian refugee Omaima, and was paired with disturbing footage from inside the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. For Ultraviolet (Light My Way), images of powerful women from throughout history were flashed across screens, including Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
To bring the energy back up after these two moving songs, and playing the quiet ballad One from Achtung Baby (1991), U2 hit three power tracks of note from recent history, Beautiful Day and Elevation from All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000), and closed with Vertigo from 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.
The band played elegantly, and their command over these songs was stronger than ever. The contributions of Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton should never get lost. They keep a wicked beat. Mad props to Louisville native Dallas Schoo, who has served as The Edge’s guitar guru for some 31 years. Schoo is the man responsible for making U2 sound like U2.
Ultimately what this show reminded all was that no successor has come forward from the Millennial generation with the talent to command world stages and speak with political authenticity. Radicals from the 1960s like Neil Young and Bob Dylan thankfully are still with us. Bruce Springsteen remains our resident urban street preacher, and there’s U2 singing their songs of struggle, love and survival. Until a worthy candidate emerges, these four school-mates from Dublin that met so long ago are hard to beat for their sheer energy and emotion.