We Need New Dreams Tonight: U2’s America As Surrender and Aspiration

June 21, 2017

“I can’t believe the news today—too true an opening line—especially today.” A good friend messaged me this as I was driving to the stadium in Tampa, Florida to attend my fifth U2 show, an occasional but recurring pilgrimage that began in 1987, on the third leg of the original Joshua Tree tour.

Three hours before Larry Mullen, Jr. would pound out the cadence to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in an anticipatory rhythm to the song’s opening lament, I was once again confronted with the scarred American landscape.

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Earlier that day, a foreboding warning came from a tweet by a religious studies professor: “I feel horrible about everything going on today.  If you do too, probably best to tap outta Twitter for a while…”

A quick scroll delivered successive gut punches. A gunman with a military grade rifle had opened fire on a congressional baseball practice in Washington, DC. Another workplace shooting and suicide had taken place in San Francisco, CA. And of course, a divided citizenry found themselves again all too eager to blame one another for the chaos.

The “Sunday Bloody Sunday” lyrics once required empathy and imagination, placing ourselves in the position of a young man coming of age in an Irish landscape torn apart by domestic terrorism, ignited by a Molotov cocktail of nationalism, religious dogmatism, and the dehumanization of the other. Now, no extra imagination or global empathy are needed, as this situation is ours, otherwise known as the daily American news cycle.

A U2 concert wouldn’t be, couldn’t be an escape from the fractured American landscape, could it? It wasn’t. Instead, it was a night of lament, recognition, and corporate confession punctuated with a dare to hope audaciously. With U2, we creatively act out the faith and dreams we allege to own with our professions. For two hours in the Florida humidity, some 60,000 people were invited to healing and commissioning in a place that Bono, in the midst of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” declared to be a “church not made by human hands”.

Throughout the night the band and its earnest frontman led us in a collective liturgy. Cynics could view this tour as an exercise in resting on one’s laurels, a nostalgic visit to the band’s watershed transformation from college radio favorite to worldwide phenomenon. But U2’s musical catalogue at this point functions like the canon of a classic text.

While all songs are rooted in particular experiences and specific temporal and social locales, the reiteration of these tunes are never strict, mimetic representations. They evoke the past, engage the present, and offer what we might call a refiguration of time and our hope for the future.  They weave a narrative that is at the same time biblical, historical, situational, and aspirational.  It is the story of an Irish rock band with a love for America, a life unafraid of confronting the beloved and calling her to a grander vision.

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Playing The Joshua Tree in its entirety is sandwiched purposefully in between the earnest yearnings of the band in the early 80’s and with some post-Joshua Tree hymns of celebration and hope amidst ambiguity, brokenness, and longing. They delivered an ode of love to America, the America that in fitful starts and stops was, is, and—most importantly, if we heed the call—is still to come.

U2 historians are aware that The Joshua Tree album was at one time going to be called The Two Americas.  It is a love song to America that contains the wonder and promise of a new love along with the pain and disappointment in relationships marked by broken promises. Throughout the night, Bono pursued us, cajoled us, encouraged and challenged us to reach for our best selves; selves we envision but have yet to embody with the consistency our self-promotion would seem to indicate.  He called us to remember that, when ‘history and hope don’t rhyme,” it is an occasion for renewed action and not cynical resignation.

America today feels torn apart, irreparably fissured. The music pleaded with us to read the present with a lens of eschatological hope. Tonight, we can be as one. Up and down the catwalk and in front of the massive video display, Bono—ever the Irish salesman, rockstar, evangelist—serves as our proxy: loving America fiercely at a moment when most of us find ourselves either unable or unwilling to. This love is indiscriminate, holy, practical, and not impaired by rose-tinted sunglasses.

As the gathered crowd’s choral singalong with “Pride” began to fade and the enormous Joshua Tree screen illuminated in a red sea of lights, Bono invoked our communal liturgy in whispered tones. He reminded those gathered of our professed values: unity, compassion, justice, and tolerance.  He also invoked the memories of those gunned down a year prior in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, a vicious assault on a community yearning to breathe free, if just for a moment. That jarring memory juxtaposed with the memory of the King assassination laid bare to us the deep ambiguous scars marking the American spiritual landscape.  As the Edge nimbly picked out the iconic opening chords of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the frontman urged us gently to surrender, just as he had done with “Bad” a few moments earlier.

For The Joshua Tree part of the show, the band and the images on the behemoth screen engaged in a shamanistic ritual dance engaging the spirits of America—both benevolent and malevolent—calling us gathered to surrender in an honest, confessional and aspirational manner, holding open the possibility of healing.

I have to admit that often my U2 fandom resembles the posture of an insufferable door-to-door evangelist whose immersion in the message betrays a lack of critical distance between the material and my experience of it. And yet, in the backdrop of a nation buffeted by deep and seemingly intractable division, I heard “One” for the first time in the depth of the ineluctable brokenness which accompanies all human relationships where we—often in spite of our best intentions—hurt each other again and again. Maybe it is easier having someone to blame.

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Yet in the depths of all these conflicted feelings, I found my attention periodically shifting from the light and sound spectacle on the stage to the illuminated American flag flying aloft from the upper deck of the stadium. In between the two images, there we were. All 60,000 of us formed into a temporary community, set apart for a moment as citizens of “U2opia,” before being sent back to an America gripped by fear and hate. Feeling deeply this tragic history that continues to manifest itself in our unfolding destiny, I was yet open to sacramental grace pushing through. We get to carry each other even though we’re not the same. What has been misunderstood as a rote retooling of the band’s past greatness is instead a call to a new narrative imagination and loving action.

Could a loving, open surrender to our landscape in both its aspirational glory and its violent transgressions address our longing for new dreams this night? For an America acquiesced to cynicism, the audacity of these guests called U2 can seem maudlin and naïve. But, if I can set aside the false certainties of cynical resignation and uncritical nationalism, if I can admit that, yes, we’re still running, then perhaps, such a message can “set me alight and [we will] punch a hole” through our dark night.

Maybe we will lay down our arms and see one another with love and compassion.  Surrender. Carry each other. Again. And again. -Rick Quinn, @apophatic1 

Florida show photos by Jaime Rodriguez, @jrodconcerts; American flag photo from U2.com social media stream TRALALA14

 

U2 beats the heat & rain & wins over the “two Floridas”!

June 16, 2017

During the current Joshua Tree tour, perhaps no pair of stops would be as intriguing as Miami and Tampa, embodying the “two Americas” theme of the album and theme of these times.

The state of Florida is as different and diverse as any state in America. Taking the famous I-4 Corridor that connects Orlando and Tampa as a separator, North and South Florida are geographically, culturally, and politically different. Here in the same state, we have different political bases as “red” as Texas (Central and North Florida) and as “blue” as California (South Florida). Every election year, the Sunshine State is an all-important ‘tossup’ state.

Catering to both demographics in the span of 4 days (Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium on June 11th and Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium on June 14th), the Irish lads brought their sold-out Joshua Tree tour here after a month on the road. Now, the setlist has been polished, the transitions are perfected, and the show sears and soars like a well-oiled machine.

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In Miami, the summer humidity didn’t stop 60,000 faithful from packing every seat of (the aptly named) Hard Rock Stadium where Larry Mullen Jr got the party started at 8:45 pm. With an energy coming from fans who came from what seemed like every South American country, the band channeled that fuel into a cracking first set that was only derailed by some severe guitar issues from The Edge during “Pride.” Guitar issues and some visible frustration from The Edge could not stop the show as soon the 200-ft. screen finally lit up with an 8K ultra high-definition red that would set the stadium on fire a few seconds later.

This tour is without a doubt the more political of the past few tours and the crowd reaction to the blunt criticism of the current administration went mostly well in Miami, even with an awkward shout-out to Senator Marco Rubio. But would the reception be the same in Tampa a few days later?

When the tour got to Tampa, we saw the central Florida city soaking in a day of thunderstorms and torrential summer downpours. At one point in the general admission line, rumors were floating the show may had to be canceled if thunder and lightning were within 8 miles of Raymond James Stadium.

Fortunately for the Joshua Tree, God was with Tampa, and the show went on as planned, returning to the city where Tampa Stadium had the original tour in 1987. Even a big, brilliant double-rainbow adorned and decorated the stadium as OneRepublic took the stage to warm up the crowd.

Once the thousands settled into their seats, it was clear that this would be a different show than Miami. From the very beginning as Adam Clayton swayed the rhythm of “New Year’s Day,” Bono was already reaching out the more conservative crowd (as he previously did in Texas). “Left, right and in between. Everyone is welcomed here”!

Maybe it was the fresh rainy weather a few hours prior, or the breeze that hit the stadium shortly after the show began, but Bono was chatty, joyous, and a bit nimbler than in the humidity and sweat of a few nights prior. For “One Tree Hill,” Bono told the story of Greg Carroll before dedicating it on this night to the city of Orlando “for the Pulse nightclub and the 49 souls that were taken away.”

As expected, a few criticisms from fans came during political sections of the show, including a St. Petersburg resident who said: “Don’t they know we just want to hear some good music and no politics? Or a local Tampa couple who bluntly said that Bono “didn’t care for the audience” by assuming they agree with him on everything.

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Both setlists were identical, including what might be the new closer for this tour: “Vertigo.”

As much as some fans complain that “Vertigo” is overplayed and the song should be dropped, it was clear from the reception both nights, that it set the crowd on fire. Perhaps alternating with “I Will Follow” and a new song, “Vertigo” is likely not going anywhere.

All in all, U2 provided the Sunshine State with two magnificent shows, yet very different ones. The politics may differ in these cities, but our love for U2 and Joshua Tree songs is something we all have in common.
-Jaime Rodriguez, @jrodconcerts https://www.jrodconcerts.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

U2′s Joshua Tree Revival Hits Texas Big Tents

June 1, 2017

As cheesy as Bono’s slogans are, I love them all. As annoying as his pleas for peaceful dialogue and post-partisan unity are, I need them every time. As he has said before, compromise is not a dirty word. Neither us nor them: only we the people who follow this band, across this land.

On this Joshua Tree anniversary tour, reaching the masses in the massive venues of North America through July 1 and Europe through August 1, Bono has said these are concrete temples, these football stadiums. In the Texas heat, the concrete cathedrals are big tents, with the retractable roof in place and the AC turned up. By Friday in Dallas, temperatures rose to the mid 90s, so we were glad to be indoors. On my first Joshua Tree adventure with my teenage self in 1987, I skipped the Texas shows. This time, Houston and Dallas were my second and third shows of five.

Tracks from War and Unforgettable Fire serve up such a great prelude on the tree stage, but the humming, rising, intoxicating intro to Streets is when church begins. During “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” he wants to wipe our “Manchester tears away,” a reference to the terrorist attack on May 22 after an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. Since Bono has added the original “No War” chant to the recurring “No More” chant, it’s like I am back in the basement on Timberline, mind blown and body shaken and spirit moved by the Blood Red Sky VHS tape I dubbed off MTV. As “Pride” winds down and “Streets” revs up, Bono is preaching. For the frontman, the true radical is straight down the middle of the road. Everyone is welcome in this tent, for the “furious and faithful” are an America based on “joy and justice, compassion and community, rescue and refuge.”

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For tonight, common ground is higher ground, Hewson teaches and preaches. For fans, the Joshua Tree portion of the show, the main act, that is higher ground. The reality that for some of us fans, the Holy Spirit always knows how to show up for “Where The Streets Have No Name.” But I cannot dance like this at the mainline churches I’ve attended, so for two Texas nights, I let the spirit take over. The concrete mainfloor of this concrete temple became a charismatic church aisle. Even though you can get a really good spot up front arriving as late as 6pm, I like to wander and hang out at the back, so I can work it out, rocking solo, prayers and emotions, dancing like nobody’s watching, throughout each part of the set. Back where a fan has plenty of room, I saw I was not alone in my own private dance party, as a young child and her mother practiced the latest moves learned at dance class. I started seeing this band with my parents. It’s just amazing how the shows bring us all together.

For most of the last three decades, “With Or Without You” or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” are highlights of any U2 set they appear in. Same for the psychedelic growl of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” which for once is in its more traditional form, after countless recontextualizing over the intervening years. I’m not saying I don’t love the first side of Joshua Tree, all the way through “Running To Stand Still,” but these are all huge U2 songs that nobody would be surprised to hear in any concert on a recent tour. For example, during the Vertigo tour which I caught four times in 2005, you could expect to hear three or four of them on a given night, and all five of the first side were in rotation.

But side two, well that is a different story. These are all hardcore rarities. Had they not announced this special tour, I would have expected to never hear any of these songs again. Sure, I might have been surprised by the occasional appearance of “In God’s Country” or “One Tree Hill,” but even for the dedicated fans coming to these shows, this second side feels like something from another planet or at least time zone, a secret show that you won in a radio or TV lottery or that only popped up in your dreams.

“Red Hill Mining Town” is all chills and thrills, and the shivers continue until the encore break. “In God’s Country” refers not just to the panoramic landscapes, seen on the big screen as visuals so grand in the hand of Anton Corbijn, but also, according to Bono, to the interior landscapes of our psychological and spiritual reality. That’s what so surreal and even psychedelic about this show, there’s the invocation of something utopian, not either side of the “two Americas” but the cosmic American dreamscape of a better place that does not deny the bitter place.

The thorny and corny romp called “Trip Through Your Wires” has always been one of my all-time favorite U2 deep tracks. It’s equal parts sanctified and raunchy, rebellious yet holy, and I am not talking about the bikini-clad model seen by all of us and seeming out-of-place on a U2 big screen. The kind of thirst Bono invokes is inherently sacred, and he knows as well as any, that the required drink of water might come from an angel or a devil, from a lover or from God’s thunder and rain.

The always talkative Bono didn’t talk as much during the Joshua Tree tracks, but that may be changing as the tour moves on. In Houston, before “One Tree Hill,” he quoted the recent track “California,” saying, “There is no end to grief because there is no end to love.” On Friday night, before the same song, he talked about its origins in New Zealand, and he referenced Greg Carroll, the U2 crew member for whom the song is dedicated. “For anyone who has been robbed of a beautiful soul, we are going to sing this for you.” The hole in U2’s collective heart always finds the hole in our hearts, until we stumble to wholeness together. The healing might be temporary, but it’s real.

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In honesty, on many private listens to the longtime favorite album, I would consider “One Tree Hill” to be the closing song. I know there are two more tracks, but they don’t get me on the album. But at this live revival, I didn’t sprint for the men’s room. Perhaps a dark conclusion is needed. After an archival film clip that parodies America’s 45th president, “Exit” begins. Bono reappears in a big black hat, begging us into a harrowing narrative of harm. This is a bad trip, like the brown acid at Woodstock. Our burdened brains receive a sucker-punch of adrenalin and dementia, so suddenly you are stuck in a mega-church gone wrong with psychotic pit-bull evangelism. The rest of the set will provide a suitable exorcism, be reassured.

After that bad-boy sadistic satisfaction of “Exit” as intentional trainwreck travesty, “Mothers of the Disappeared” still shows up as a solemn tribute. We could sing it for any mother and every mother. But mothers of sons cut down too soon by brutality, they need this song. When Bono took off his hat, bowed his head, and raised his fist, it’s like I could see that 1987 ponytail again. It’s the young man inside the old man from Dublin, said the young man inside this fan-man who chased this band back then and chases this band now.

At Houston, when they moved “Miss Sarajevo” and “Bad” to the first encore spot, this meant I could have my stupid-cry all in one place. These songs prompted me to bawl for different reasons, the first for collective grief, the latter for spiritual relief. The early “Bad” in Dallas was also dynamic, if a little disconcerting, as that track always felt like it fit in the middle or end of a set.

After first seeing the show in northern California, I frankly didn’t anticipate how well the Syria footage and Omaima plea would play in a place like Texas. So in Houston, I turned my back to the stage and walked towards the fans, scanning faces both on the floor and in the stands. I saw more tears, some quizzical but mostly sincere and solemn gazes of people drinking in the predicament of how wrong this world can be when we abandon our better selves for selfish systems. The singing about surrender promises at least one solution. Get out of self, get out there and help others.

Thanks to more setlist rearranging in Dallas, this meant that on Friday night, my two Texas shows in three days would end with a crescendo. “Beautiful Day” is always a beautiful thing, even in this rainbow-colored, space-age rendition. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the new track, “The Little Things That Give You Away,” but it feels like an odd way to end this show. I just wish they would release the next album already! So after “Beautiful Day,” the call of the exit ramps echoed in my gut, the tug of the idea of beating some traffic back to my AirBNB. By the time they finished an energizing “Elevation,” which is always better live, which always feels like I am at the gym, getting my workout on and hard, I had left the GA mainfloor and was bouncing around the concourse, close to the doors. So when Bono said “We can do this” and pulled an improvisational audible call for “I Will Follow,” it sent me into happy, zappy boyhood orbit once again. An usher and I danced on the outskirts, each of us in our own personal head and heart zone of rocking, sonic, cosmic, boundless, bounding bliss.

Leaving a U2 always comes with mixed feelings. This concert left me exhilarated, but I regret that my current run with them has already passed its halfway point. Three shows down, two remaining! This hobby costs more than it did in 1987, so I am grateful to my two jobs for the flexibility and income and my dear family for the support they offer me in zipping around to these gigs. -Andrew William Smith, @teacheronradio 

Photos are from Pasadena shows, by Justin Kent. http://www.justin-kent.com/

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