U2's love/hate relationship with the United States was the demon seed that birthed its fiery flower, The Joshua Tree, one of the finest albums of the eighties. Rage over U.S. foreign policy under Ronald Reagan and intoxication with American roots music are the heart and soul of that 1987 record. The Joshua Tree was both an ode and an argument, and it shot the band into the stratosphere.
Thirty years later, the theme of America as world stage villain remains eerily relevant – and was very much part of the narrative as the band launched its Joshua Tree anniversary tour in Vancouver Friday night.
"Send a message from Canada to the U.S.A.," Bono urged the cheering crowd, before leading it in a chorus of "power of the people; so much stronger than the people in power."
At one point, black-and-white film clips played from an episode of an old TV western, Trackdown, in which a con man named Trump comes to town to warn citizens to protect themselves from the end of the world by building a wall. "You're a liar, Trump," the hero responds.
Bono also preached: "In a democracy, the government should fear the citizens, not the other way around."
And, during a rousing Pride (In the Name of Love) as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech was spelled out on the screen behind, Bono talked about the "magnificent city of Vancouver" and how Dr. King's dream "is very much alive" here. "While others closed their doors, yours are open!"
As the crowd oh-oh-oh-oh'd along, Bono implored: "Dr. King, in a time of terror, keep us tolerant. In a time of fear, keep us faithful."
Sometimes the anti-Donald Trump commentary was more subtle (if one can use that word to describe anything Bono does). In a tribute to women for Ultra Violet (Light My Way), the faces of notable women flashed behind the band – including Malala Yousafzai, Rosa Parks, but also Oprah Winfrey and Lena Dunham as well as Canadians Joni Mitchell and k.d. lang. Bono dedicated the song to "our mothers, our daughters, the women on our crew" but also women "who resisted and insisted and persisted" – a seeming reference to one great Trump nemesis, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. "You light the way."
It was easy to read a commentary on current events in Bono's absolute fury as he shouted "I'm so sick of it!" on the night's dazzling opener, Sunday Bloody Sunday.
U2's set kicked off on a high note – that show-stopping anti-war anthem followed by another track from the same album, War. As the band roared on New Year's Day, Bono took a moment to contemplate the crowd, looking around and up at the jam-packed stadium, as if to remind himself – yes, we're still here, we're still doing this, we're still a draw.
Are they ever – and this caused problems early on; people who had shown up an hour or more before showtime – 7:30 p.m. – were stuck outside in massive lines as the opening act, Mumford & Sons, began its set. There was only one entrance for general admission tickets – to the entire stadium floor – and a credit card verification system that seemed to be problematic, according to some tweets. As fans barely inched forward outside BC Place while tweeting rage and disappointment, Vancouver Police asked fans to "[please] be patient" in a tweet.
Some people missed the entire opener – and Mumford & Sons were terrific, delivering a tight, passionate set to a half-empty stadium. By the time U2 hit the stage, the place was full. As to how this was accomplished, some people tweeted that they ultimately entered without anyone ever checking their ticket.
U2 began the night on a small stage in the middle of the crowd, Larry Mullen Jr. strolling out to his drum kit as the crowd went wild, followed by the other guys who – more than 40 years ago – had responded to a note he tacked up in his Dublin high school, looking to start a band.
"So here we are again in this city we love, Vancouver," Bono charmed after belting out the two War favourites.
"We're trying to find some magic in this concrete temple, where we feel strangely at home," he said (the band has been rehearsing at BC Place) as it launched into A Sort of Homecoming.
U2 continued with its chronological lead-up to the album it was celebrating, with two more tracks from The Unforgettable Fire: MLK and Pride.
Then, The Joshua Tree. Having never heard a band play an album front-to-back live, I expected it to be a trippy and fantastical experience, where you are transported back to your teenage bedroom, the scene of so many album spins – but this time the band was there, playing it for you.
It was wonderful – but it also drove home that part of the rush of the concert experience is not knowing what's coming next: the thrill at hearing the opening strains of the next song while shouting approval at the moment of recognition.
That said, it was fantastic to hear that album – life-changing for many fans, and certainly for the band itself – in its entirety. The gorgeous strains of With or Without You, an absolute rocking Trip Through Your Wires and – maybe the highlight – Exit: Bono in his preacher's hat, all jerky charisma on the catwalk as the band rocked out behind him. And, like back in the day, Bono picked up the spotlight and shone it on The Edge for Bullet The Blue Sky. The show also marked the first time the band played Red Hill Mining Town in concert.
Each track was accompanied by a film, showcasing the landscapes and people that had inspired the album, and riffing on the themes of the songs. Director Anton Corbijn – who had taken the band all those years ago into the California desert for a notoriously gruelling film shoot for The Joshua Tree – created gorgeous, exciting images for each track. It began with an immersive drive through the desert for Where the Streets Have No Name. (The exhausted-looking people walking by the side of the road called to mind the current U.S. administration's problems with Mexicans, but maybe I was reading too much into it).
The films often picked up on a lyric or theme – a red moon for One Tree Hill; the word "love" spelled out on someone's knuckles for Exit; a woman in a stars-and-stripes bikini with a lasso on Trip Through Your Wires; a haunting line of women holding candles emerging from the blue fog for Mothers of the Disappeared.
"Thanks for listening to our new long player," Bono joked after Mothers, the haunting, final track. "Thirty years young."
The band returned for more hits – Beautiful Day, Elevation and One among them. Then, with a Canadian flag wrapped around his microphone stand, Bono launched into Miss Sarajevo. Behind him, the film of the night: a Syrian girl who dreams of becoming a lawyer toured us through the enormous Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Miss Sarajevo became Miss Aleppo, and it was devastating and beautiful.
The show ended with the debut of a new song, The Little Things That Give You Away, which will be on the band's next album, Songs of Experience. "Sometimes, I wake at four in the morning where all the doubt is swarming," Bono sang.
In fact, he had nine hours of sleep the previous night – something he hasn't had since he was nine, he joked – and Bono was mostly in his usual fantastic form, although he did reach occasionally for notes and frequently for water, his voice sounding raspy at times. "Thirty years and I still can't play the harmonica," Bono laughed as U2 launched into Trip Through Your Wires. "Larry, help me out here."
Whatever. It was a magnificent show, as it always is with U2. But all these years later, there are still some swarming doubts. I was shocked two years ago when the band, in rehearsals for its Innocence and Experience tour – which also launched in Vancouver – told me in an interview that it still get nervous before starting a tour.
Maybe there's a tiny seed of insecurity fuelling its consistent excellence.
"Was that all right?" Bono asked at the end of the night.