U2. Photo by Nikole Tower

U2 Ponders What's Changed Since 1987 as Joshua Tree Anniversary Tour Comes to Phoenix

Written by Nikole Tower Category: Music Issue: September 2017
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Last night's highly anticipated U2 concert at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale ushered in the official start of fall in the Valley. The roof, gleefully, was open, framing a few stars and washing the packed crowd with blessed late-September breezes. Bono and the band delighted, playing hits spanning their 41-year career – from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to “Beautiful Day,” along with every song from the beloved Joshua Tree album.

Before the iconic Irish band took the stage, the crowd was warmed up with an hour-long performance by Beck. Clad in a red shirt and black leather jacket, Beck drew in the crowd  with classics like “Loser," but also strapped on an acoustic guitar for a couple songs in the middle before breaking out into a harmonica solo to transition into “headbanging” songs like “E-Pro.” Beck singled one dude out from the group nearest the stage and awarded him with the best headbanging in the stadium.

Close to an hour after Beck departed, the lights dimmed as Larry Mullen Jr. began drumming. One by one, Bono, bassist Adam Clayton, and guitarist and keyboardist David Evans, aka, The Edge, joined him on the smaller of the two stages. Cast in a red-orange glow, Bono belted "Sunday Bloody Sunday," his vocals as clear as the night sky.

U2 performs Joshua Tree at University of Phoenix Stadium. Photo by Nikole Tower.

The idea of "America" factored prominently in the band's 30th anniversary revisiting of their 1987 Joshua Tree Tour. On the big screens, poems like Langston Hughes' "Let American Be America Again" and Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness” scrolled throughout the night. The band mainly stayed in safe territory, avoiding talk of current events except for a brief video mid-show featuring a dopey character named Trump who preaches about building a wall. Rather, they explored whether much has changed since they toured in the late '80s, focusing on broad themes of civil rights and equality. Something Bono said during “Beautiful Day” summed it up thusly: “When human rights drown out human wrongs, it’s a beautiful day.”

“What is that sound?” Bono asked the crowd. “We are still here, you are still there. Nothing has changed, everything has changed." The screen behind him was an intense red, silhouetting the band in the most picturesque way. The red melted into an image of a road, white lights framing it to make it look like a film reel, transporting us to the desert wonderland of Joshua Tree.

Every song on the album was portrayed in a mini music video on the big screen, creating a new experience for each track. “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You” were highlighted with videos displaying the beauty of the national park that the album was named for. “Bullet the Blue Sky” introduced faces to the videos – images of everyday people in front of an American flag putting on helmets.

“Red Hill Mining Town” was a defining moment as the first color video of the night – after looking at black and white for so long, it made the colors that more vibrant. The video of the Salvation Army Brass Band playing outdoors under the sun shining brightly on their shiny instruments and blue uniforms stood starkly against the black and white lighting of U2 on stage. It was the perfect contrast of night and day, with one band is playing under the stars in Phoenix and the other is set in a desert landscape under a bright blue sky.

U2 performs at University of Phoenix Stadium. Photo by Nikole Tower.

The show wrapped with a few recent singles, including “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” which was only the fourth time they had played it live, plus a seven song encore. “Miss Sarajevo,” the song U2 made with Passengers, featured a moving video starring iconic women from around the world, including Sojourner Truth, Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Patti Smith, Angela Merkel, Sandra Day O’Conner and Malala Yousafzi. Following a speech from Bono about the idea of America being built on hope and resisting being brought down by fear, the whole thing ended, fittingly, with a farewell performance of "One," beseeching the crowd to contemplate what's changed for the better, or worse, in the last 30 years.

"Is it getting better?" the song asks. "Or do you feel the same?"