On Saturday evening, U2 performed the first of two sold-out shows at The Rose Bowl. The band’s current tour is a celebration of the 30th anniversary of their Grammy Award-winning album The Joshua Tree and a promotion for several varieties of 30th anniversary deluxe editions (no doubt the snazziest deluxe editions since the 20th anniversary commemorative editions). However, while U2’s music was the fulcrum of the evening, the event served as a veritable smorgasbord of modern life.
Pilgrims could be seen hiking towards the Rose Bowl from two miles away. By one mile away, traffic was at a standstill. At this point, the first wave of discount concert t-shirt vendors pitched their wares and haggled prices with walkers and stalled drivers. One half mile away, many of the frustrated drivers opted to pay $25 to park at a local school. The remaining drivers very slowly inched their way the remaining distance so they could conveniently park on the grounds of the Rose Bowl for $40. Between the parking and the stadium, fences enclosed a vending area, where official merch could be purchased (t-shirts started at $45), pizza slices could be bought for $10, and bottles of water could be gotten for $7. Individuals and small groups of fans kicked back on the lawn to down their food and beverages and revel in their mounting enthusiasm for seeing U2.
One long security check-in line plus an additional slow-moving ticket scan line later, and ticket-holders were in the venue! At 7:00, The folk rock / Americana opening act, The Lumineers began their one hour set. The stage that they played upon featured an 200’ x 45’ wall, which was painted with a large Joshua tree. One third of the wall served as a screen for the camera feeds, which showcased close-ups of the band members. The Lumineers’ set was very good, and the audience responded well — many people were well-versed enough in the music to sing along with tunes like “Hey Ho,” “Cleopatra,” and “Big Parade.” The evening’s first note of poignancy rang out when singer / guitarist Wesley Schultz introduced his song “Charlie Boy,” by explaining that it was the story of his uncle, a promising young man with plans for his future; Charlie was seduced by John F. Kennedy’s rhetoric about the importance of patriotism, and he wound up being killed in Vietnam. Near the end of The Lumineers’ set, however, the attention of a goodly portion of the crowd on one side of the stadium had been diverted from the music and messages of the band to an apparent Bono sighting.
As fingers pointed, more and more people stood up, raced towards the scene of commotion, and climbed over one another to get a look. A short man with Bono’s distinct super-star look was posing for pictures near one of the Red Zone signs (the signs denoted the pricey, general admission, VIP area — a portion of the proceeds go to red.org, which raises awareness and funds for combatting AIDS / HIV) . As the crowd’s adulation swelled, the little fellow began wandering to several nearby seating sections to pose for selfies with fans and shake people’s hands while professional and amatuer cameramen filmed him. No one in this mob noticed that The Lumineers had finished their set with “Stubborn Love” and departed. Soon after the Bono incident, the word got round (via mouth and social media #imposter) that the swell had been caused by one of several Bono lookalikes in attendance.
More people filed into the stadium between the acts, while food and beverage vendors sold their expensive goods, a few people in the Red Zone played hacky sack, and the screen displayed a scrolling series of poems and narratives with hard-hitting social commentary — a principal message being that minority groups need to resist playing into the socio-political plights that are promulgated through the false American dream of consumerism propaganda. Loud cries of “Churros! Get your Churros!” and “Lemonade! Ice cold lemonade!” made it difficult for the serious tone of the scrolling words to prevail.
At 8:45, Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” was piped through the sound system in tribute to the late Chris Cornell, and the stadium lit up with cell phone flashlights. Following that, “Rainy Night in Soho,” a song about aging gracefully by the Celtic punk band The Pogues signalled that it was time for the main event to begin. Larry Mullen Jr. walked out to the “B” stage (an island linked to the main stage via a catwalk) and began playing the drums for “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Next up, The Edge began his guitar part as he walked out to join Mullen. He was followed by Bono, who entered as he began the first verse, and bringing up the rear was bassist Adam Clayton.
For the first four songs, the stage show consisted of the four fellas performing on the little stage, highlighted by variously colored spotlights and floodlights, which most notably bathed the audience in red during the opening number. After they played “New Year’s Day,” “A Sort of Homecoming” and “Pride,” the audience was sufficiently primed for the performance of The Joshua Tree, in its entirety.
The entire wall was illuminated in red with the Joshua tree design appearing as a silhouette. As the quartet marched up the catwalk to the mainstage, where they stood as silhouettes, the familiar synthesizer opening to “Where The Streets Have No Name” emanated from the sound system. Finally, the lights hit them and they tore into the song as the crowd wet its collective panties.
The lighting scheme on the wall was replaced with the first of a series of scenic films (shot by Anton Corbijn, the Dutch photographer / filmmaker who shot the photos from The Joshua Tree album and other U2 projects) that would show throughout the night. To illustrate the first song, the film was a POV shot from a car driving slowly down a desert road and occasionally passing vagrants carrying water jugs.
Several songs in, Bono made a dedication to Chris Cornell and his family. “Running to Stand Still,” the fifth song on The Joshua Tree album, is about drug addiction and feeling trapped, and the timeliness of the expression was very powerfully felt by a large number of audience members. The performance of this song was particularly strong.
Following “Red Hill Mining Town,” Bono said, “Welcome to side two!” He then expressed wonderment as to why the band had never played that song prior to this tour. Next up came “In God’s Country,” which was followed by more Bono chat. This time, the famously political singer made the first overt gesture to the policies of the current president of the United States by saying, “Thanks for allowing us Irish into the country. We don’t forget that we’re guests.”
After a powerful rendition of “One Tree Hill,” came another political comment — this time in the form of a film clip. As prophetic as it seems, there was a 50’s television series called Trackdown with an episode featuring a snake oil salesman named Trump who cons a town full of gullible people into investing in a wall, which he promises will save them from certain doom. Upon the large backdrop, the band screened a key scene from the episode in which the con man makes his pitch and then another scene in which someone shouts him down by screaming, “You’re a liar, Trump!” The band then performed “Exit.”
When the album was done, Bono said, “Muchas gracias!” and the band walked off the stage. At this point, a small wave of audience members made a break for it, but they were to miss out on some additional great songs and a whole lot more of Bono’s famous proselytizing. The music started back up with “Beautiful Day,” and “Elevation,” featuring a great jam by The Edge. Then came Bono’s dedication to women. It started with recognition of the women in the band’s life, then extended to the women in the crew, then to those in the audience, and then came the song “Ultra Violet (Light My Way).” During the song’s performance, dozens of notable women throughout world history had their faces and names emblazoned upon the large screen.
After that came Bono’s observation that all of the people whom had been portrayed via his bright lights were luminous people, but he insisted that social movements were even more influential. He then went on to say that governments should fear their citizens, not the other way around; point out that US taxpayers are all AIDS activists because of the work the US has done in developing medication for people suffering from AIDS / HIV; and give some shoutouts / accolades to artists who had collaborated with the band. They then performed “One.”
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Finally came the Syrian pitch. The screen posed the question: “If you could speak to thousands of people at one time, what would you say?” A young Syrian girl was then shown in extreme close-up. Her eyes pierced the crowd as she announced that she would like to live in a place where she would not have to fear for her life, was free to pursue the things she enjoyed, and, in summation: she would like to go to America. A rather sparse and listless round of applause resounded throughout the stadium in response to the child’s words. The band then performed “Miss Sarajevo” while the screen depicted the war-torn and poverty-stricken streets of Syria while a huge tapestry, depicting the child’s face, was passed hand-over-hand to make a sweep of the stadium.
In closing, Bono announced, “Thanks for giving us a great life.” He then added with a chuckle, “Let’s do this again in 2047!” The band then performed “Bad” and closed with a very satisfying “I Will Follow” (the performance of which marked a departure from “The Little Things That Give You Away,” their new song which had been the final number at the previous tour shows and the final number that would be played the following night at Rose Bowl).
The audience left the stadium to find an overwhelmingly long line greeting them. The line that stretched over the grounds was for the convenience of catching one of an armada of shuttle buses, presumably destined to a far-away parking area. The crowd members who had shelled out the big bucks for primo parking now had the privilege of waiting in a line of traffic to get out, while others hit the road for the long, uphill walk back to their respective, smart parking areas. It had been a beautiful day.