You know you're at a huge event when Bill Gates and Eddie Vedder show up. Such is the magnitude of U2's 30th anniversary stadium tour for “The Joshua Tree,” the iconic, Irish rock quartet's most celebrated album.
The trek made its U.S. debut Sunday at Seattle's Century Link Field, following its launch the night before in Vancouver, BC. Gates – the co-founder of Microsoft, aka the richest man on the planet – could be spotted in the stands, milling around with the hoi polloi minutes before the headlining set; and later, Bono (born Paul David Hewson) acknowledged the city's most famous entrepreneur and philanthropist from the stage.
“Next to my wife, Ali, no one has inspired me more in my activism than Bill and Melinda Gates,” the singer said as he set up U2's signature ballad “One” (for which his One campaign to fight poverty and disease in Africa is named.)
Pearl Jam's Vedder (basically, Seattle's Bono) made an appearance just before the encore, joining opening act Mumford & Sons in singing backup for “Mothers of the Disappeared,” the poignant final track from “Joshua Tree.” The performances leading up to that crowd-pleasing cameo served to highlight just how relevant that album still feels (or rather, feels again) three decades after its release.
Its working title was “The Two Americas,” its content inspired by the band's travels across the country in the '80s and Bono's outsider view of our reality; and if trickle down economics and U.S. foreign intervention were muses back then, the album's themes seem to ring especially true against the backdrop of growing unease in Trump's America.
“These songs have a new meaning and a new resonance today that they didn't have three years ago, four years ago,” guitarist David “The Edge” Evans told Rolling Stone a few months ago, citing the president as a major reason for wanting to revisit the album. (He was referenced just once Sunday using clips from the 1950s, western TV show “Takedown.” In them, a con man named Trump convinces townspeople the world is about to end. His solution: build a wall, of course, an odd bit of prophecy that still lives on YouTube if you want to look it up.)
Before diving into “The Joshua Tree” material, U2 – also drummer Larry Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton – warmed up with a flurry of hits, starting out on a sub-stage that was connected to the main one by a long catwalk. Fans were hooked instantly, of course, with many belting out the lyrics to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “In the Name of Love” at full volume. Something seemed off, though: Where were all the expensive gadgets and gawdy spectacle fans were accustomed to seeing at their shows?
The big reveal took place once the quartet returned to the main stage. What had seemed like a plain wall – or maybe a veil hiding their best toys - was actually a massive, curvy, 200-foot video screen, reportedly the biggest ever incorporated into a rock show.
In lieu of lasers and pyrotechnics, U2 enhanced its tunes with majestic visuals provided by acclaimed, Dutch director Anton Corbijn. The camera cruised slowly down a sparse desert highway, passing weary travelers during “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Majestic rust-colored mountains were the breathtaking backdrop for “With or Without You.” But perhaps most poignant were the stoic faces that gazed into the camera during the anti-war “Bullet the Blue Sky.” They were of vary ages, races and sexes but all wore U.S. Army helmets, their expressions conveying a palpable sense of loss.
Many of the songs from “Joshua Tree” songs are familiar classics by now; but among the most powerful performances was “Red Hill Mining Town,” a song U2 had only played live once, the previous night in Vancouver. The band has mixed up the arrangement, with The Edge on keys and a Salvation Army brass band section playing onscreen. The lyrics were inspired by the 1984 National Union of Mineworkers Strike in Great Britain, but they might as well have been about today's working poor. “Hanging on, you're all that's left to hold on to,” went Bono's heart-rending refrain.
U2 also notably performed a new ballad called “The Little Things That Give You Away.” They had wrapped up with that one in Vancouver, but it must have felt a tad anticlimactic in Seattle, prompting a quick huddle.
“That was the end, but there's one more for people who have traveled from all over this city,” Bono said. “Let's get back to where we started.” The band's 1980 debut single “I Will Follow” wasn't on the official set list, but it must be now based on the way that one turned back time, sparking a flurry of pogo-hopping down on the floor.
U2 Set list: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year's Day,” “A Sort of Homecoming,” “MLK,” “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “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,” “God's Country,” “Trip Through Your Wires,” “One Tree Hill,” “Exit,” “Mothers of the Disappeared” (with Eddie Vedder and Mumford & Sons)
Encore: “Beautiful Day,” “Elevation,” “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” “One,” “Miss Sarajevo,” “The Little Things That Give You Away”
Opening act: Mumford & Sons