U2 journeys through America’s past, present, and future at the first of two Midwest shows

U2 in Vancouver, earlier on the tour.

U2 in Vancouver, earlier on the tour. Photo by Danny North.

Maybe the America that U2 immortalized with The Joshua Tree never truly existed except in the hearts and minds of the band and their fans. But those songs live on even as this country’s ideals have grown tarnished and faded.

The meaning and the message of the material has evolved since The Joshua Tree was released in 1987, yet we need U2's unifying spirit of hope, harmony, and wonder more than ever. So around 70,000 fans, old and young, filled a sold-out Soldier Field in Chicago on a gorgeous Saturday night to pay tribute to an album and a band that have provided a meaningful soundtrack to their lives for years now.

The two-hour performance served as a generous cross-section of U2’s career, with a four-song flurry of classic anthems -- “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” “Bad” and “Pride (In the Name of Love) -- emphatically kicking off the night. The band started off tight together on a small stage extending into the crowd, shaped like the shadow of the towering Joshua Tree that would come to life later during the album portion of the set. The quartet (Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr.) tore through the early songs with the energy of the Dublin garage band they began as. Bono earnestly addressed the crowd before a stellar version of “Bad”: “Thank you for letting us back in to your great city and your great country. Whatever you don’t need in your life tonight, just let it go at the rock show.”

The whole evening was a testimony to the power of rock and its ability to lift us up and set us free. But U2 are currently experiencing an America more divided, dissatisfied, and incensed than it has ever been during their nearly four decades of touring this country. And Bono, always a loquacious frontman, reassured the crowd that all were welcome at this show, “No matter who you voted for,” and that together we will find common ground through the strength of song and an unshakable belief that the story of America is ultimately a heroic one.

To that end, he dedicated “Pride” to “The furious and the faithful, for those holding on and for those letting go of the American dream,” all with the indelible words of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech scrolling on the towering 200 x 45 foot LED screen looming behind the band. U2 have never been content with small-scale artistic statements or timid creative ideas, and the Joshua Tree Tour is clearly no exception. The sound, the scope, the screen, the material, and the message were all arena-sized and then some.

The run-through of The Joshua Tree began with the group huddling up on the main stage while a massive silver image of the Joshua Tree turned blood red. The group then launched into a trio of massive hits that remain as resonant and affecting as they were when they dominated MTV and the radio during the late ‘80s: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You.” “Streets” was augmented by massive images of a desert road, desolate and lonely, but with the potential to lead someone anywhere they yearned to go. And towards the end of a deeply moving “With Or Without You,” Bono admitted, “These songs belong to you now. They’re yours. Sing your heart out.” And we did.

The album portion of the set was a celebration of an America that inspired the band to reach great creative heights, though that vision proved to be an idyllic, elusive one that never fully arrived for a majority of this country. That perpetual struggle of dreams realized versus hopes dashed continues to form the restless undercurrent of these songs, with Bono paying a quick but moving tribute to a fallen cohort during an understated version of “Running to Stand Still” (“Chris Cornell…still running!”) and announcing proudly after “Red Hill Mining Town,” “After 30 years we’ve finally figured out that song.”

“Welcome to Side Two,” Bono announced before the Edge’s swirling guitar riffs kicked “In God’s Country” into high gear. The second half was more refined and muted than the first, but the emotions of these less acclaimed numbers hit even harder than those from Side One. After a touching story about the death an early U2 crew member, Greg Carroll, Bono dedicated “One Tree Hill” to “anyone who has had a soul stolen from them or robbed from them.” While the heartbreaking album closer, “Mothers of the Disappeared,” took on an added poignancy as solemn images of cloaked women holding candles rose up amidst the shadows behind the band, as the album reached its graceful, haunting conclusion.

The lively and lengthy encore recaptured the rousing nature of the start of the show, with the band switching things up by emphasizing their more recent string of hits. The stage was awash is a swirl of psychedelic neon lights and a disco ball during an exuberant “Beautiful Day,” while the slinky churn of “Elevation” got the full housing bouncing in time to the rhythmic stomp of Clayton and Mullen Jr. “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” was affectionately dedicated to “all the women in our lives who continually light our way,” with a string of images of inspirational, prestigious women filling up the screen (Michelle Obama, Patti Smith, Betty Friedan, Malala Yousafzai, Poly Styrene, Pussy Riot) as the song took flight.

A tender rendition of “One” allowed Bono to make one more plea for unity and acceptance, while also praising filmmaker (and longtime U2 collaborator) Anton Corbjin for the series of stunning new images he shot for the band that were featured on the screens throughout the show. Bono also led the crowd in a “Happy Birthday” singalong for Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, who gave the band their big break in the industry (and was one of many stars in attendance at the show).

The night's performance was an exultant, unguarded glimpse of all phases of the band’s career, and the only way it could end was with U2 taking it back to where it all began with “I Will Follow,” track one, side one from their 1980 debut, Boy. The journey is clearly not over for U2 at this point, not by a long shot. But this night was an affectionate look back at all the glorious places the band has managed to take us all throughout the years, while giving us hope that the American Dream isn’t dead. We just need to revive it anew together.

A note about the opener: We arrived in time to catch the final six songs of the Lumineers opening set, and it was six songs too many. The Denver band’s bland, monotonous folk was more of a chore to listen rather than music to energize the crowd in anticipation of the headliners. Singer Wesley Schultz was earnest enough, desperately trying to get his songs to reach the fans on the upper levels of the stadium. But ultimately they fell flat, sounding too alike to differentiate one number from the next, and coming off too lifeless and unthreatening to make any significant impact other than killing some time until U2 took the stage.

A note about the venue: Security at Soldier Field was understandably on high alert following the terrorist attacks in London hours prior to the show and Manchester two weeks earlier. A heightened police presence was visible outside the venue, while metal detectors and thorough searches made for long lines leading in to the stadium. But those safety measures helped ease the minds of anyone concerned about a potential attack at one of the year’s highest profile concerts in the Midwest.

As for the venue itself, the recently renovated Soldier Field is a massive structure, with multiple rows of skyboxes sitting atop the already towering fourth level of the stadium. But for a space of that size, the sound (at least from my seats) was excellent. They could use some clearer signage both inside and outside the stadium, though -- we had to walk the entirety of Soldier Field to get our tickets then eventually find the right gate to enter. But hey, at least that long walk made us to miss some of the Lumineers.

A note on the tour: U2's two nights in Chicago this weekend were the closest scheduled performances to us here in the Twin Cities, justifying a road trip -- though if rumors of future tour dates prove true, this review may serve as a preview of what we have to look forward to this fall.

Sunday Bloody Sunday
New Year’s Day
Bad (with snippet of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”)
Pride (In the Name Of Love)

The Joshua Tree
Where the Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
With Or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Running To Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
In God’s Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Mothers of the Disappeared

Beautiful Day
Miss Syria (Sarajevo) (Passengers cover)
Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
I Will Follow