When Bono declared, in 1991, that U2’s song “The Fly” was “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree,” the last thing you’d have expected the band to do was to plant it again. The Irish quartet’s 1987 album established them as worldwide superstars, but they’ve since defined themselves as band that refuses to look back. In a sense, The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 is their boldest risk yet—and at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, for the tour’s first American show, it paid off.
In front of a giant, rippling screen topped by the limbs of a Joshua tree jutting into the sky, the band revived their album in sequence, from their signature anthem “Where the Streets Have No Name” to the lament “Mothers of the Disappeared,” delving deep into the songs’ contradictions. The Joshua Tree at once embraces the American roots of rock’n’roll (cemented by Bono’s harmonica playing on the blusey “Trip Through Your Wires”), evokes the country’s open spaces (suggested by The Edge’s chiming guitar lines), and critiques its inequality and foreign policy. All of these elements came together in the band’s committed performance, as well as the films their longtime photographer, Anton Corbijn, shot to accompany them.
But the most startling aspect of the show was how cathartic it felt. Starting their set with their anti-sectarian song “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” with its refrain, “Tonight, we can be as one,” they made a case for the continued relevance of rock music itself—not as a tool for confrontation, but as an art form that can create unity. In a time of partisan divisions, there’s something powerful about hearing 55,000 people singing together.
Their opening mini-set doubled down on this idea, with “New Year’s Day” (on which Bono sings “I will be with you again”), “A Sort of Homecoming” (“Tonight, we’ll build a bridge”), and “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, after which Bono called for awakening “the America of compassion, of community, of justice, of joy.” So it was a natural transition to “Where the Streets Have No Name,” with a Corbijn film of driving down a desert highway towards snow-capped mountains—past what seemed to be refugees, under a dark cloud.
The U2 brand of optimism works because it’s never one-note: There’s always another layer, whether it’s insecurity, sadness, or rage against injustice. And where the band—in particular, Bono—were known for wearing their emotions on their sleeves in the 1980s, U2 in 2017 are more dramatically restrained. Small gestures take on bigger significance, such as Bono’s nod to the original Joshua Tree tour, shining a spotlight on The Edge during the searing guitar solo on “Bullet the Blue Sky.”
The album’s darkest song, “Exit,” a portrayal of a serial killer, was prefaced by an excerpt from an old Western where a villain named Trump is called a liar—the show’s one pointed comment on current events. At this point, Bono the extravert was finally unleashed: he strode out onto the b-stage in a black hat, prowling like an evil preacher. The closing “Mothers of the Disappeared” found hometown hero Eddie Vedder and openers Mumford and Sons joining the band onstage to sing its urgent refrain—and the song’s darkness was leavened by hope.
The encore, featuring more recent songs, was propulsive and political: “Ultraviolet” featured a Mother’s Day shout-out to activist women (including Seattle’s Melinda Gates, whose husband, Bill, was in the audience, beaming); “One” was prefaced with a salute to “American taxpayers” for helping to fight AIDS; and a run-through of 1995’s “Miss Sarajevo” was poignantly set off by visuals of a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, as a giant sheet depicting the face of one of its inhabitants was passed around the stadium by the crowd.
The band delivered a nod to the future, too: “The Little Things That Give You Away,” slated for the upcoming Songs of Experience, opened as a stark ballad and surged with a triumphant build. The lights came on, but “I Will Follow” proved an unexpected encore, as Bono with the lights turned on, as Bono exhorted the crowd to “tear the fucking roof off!” There’s no roof in CenturyLink Field, but so jubilant was the atmosphere, it felt as though clouds had been lifted—and spirits too.