If U2’s “The Joshua Tree” tour has shown fans and critics anything aside from one of the most well executed performances of 2017, it’s that rock’s most outspoken frontman is more than equal to the fast and furious news cycle associated with a Donald Trump presidency.
The question, “how politcal is Bono going to get tonight?” must have crept into almost every mind filling AT&T Stadium Friday night in a set that included all 11 tracks from what is widely considered to be U2’s best effort to date, “The Joshua Tree,” released 30 years ago. But to get swept up in eyerolls over 80,000 “snowflakes” having a love-in at the house that capitalism built was to miss the point entirely. Whatever side of the aisle you’ve planted yourself upon, Bono made the grandest of arguments for his brand of inclusivity, throwing bones to both the political left and the right along the way, while his band simply killed it all the way through.
There is almost no other way to put it.
U2 even managed to defy AT&T Stadium’s infamous reputation for sonically ruining good music. The echo off the far end of the cavernous Death Star that persisted during the opening set of Denver folk group The Lumineers’ vanished during the poli sci masters class Professor Bono & Co. put on.
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It’s important to remember that at the heart of the band’s politics lies basic humanity. It showed as much in the lucid poetry of Walt Whitman, Pedro Pietri, Lucille Clifton and Alberto Rios scrolling down the black, 200 x 45-foot cinematic screen behind the two stages while roadies set up the band’s equipment as it did in the iconic photography and filmwork of “Joshua Tree” photographer Anton Corbijn that lit up the stadium in 8K resolution for the duration of the show.
The front stage jutted out into the general admission pit that took up nearly the entire length of what is usually a football field, in the shape of the Joshua Tree originally captured by Corbijn for the album artwork. While thousands opted to turn a blind eye to the scrolling verse that foreshadowed the direction of the rest of the night in favor of grabbing another $17 margarita before heading back to their $200 seat, they couldn’t ignore the human face Bono put on each and every one of his pet issues for more than two hours.
It was evident in Bono’s calls to “wipe Manchester’s tears away” – referring to the 22 people who died in a terrorist bombing at an Ariana Grande concert there Monday – in the middle of a near-perfect rendition of the show-opening “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” . It was right there in the faces of the young and the old donning 20th-century hard-shell military helmets, staring back at the audience during a version of “Bullet the Blue Sky” that may as well have been performed by Rage Against the Machine.
The Edge certainly managed a convincing impersonation of Rage guitarist Tom Morello on one of the hardest-rocking songs of the night, raking a guitar slide down the neck of his custom Les Paul. And, as the song goes, “Outside it [was] America.”
Bono regaled a rapt crowd he had eating out of his hand with the story of a 15-year-old Syrian girl the band met in a Jordanian refugee camp, named Omaima, who wants to come to America “because it is a beautiful country.”
“Texas, hold her up,” Bono commanded, as a white banner with the same black-and-white image of the young girl, who wore a red, white and blue head scarf on the video screen, was passed around the lower bowl of the stadium like a “Fear the Frog” banner is passed along at a TCU football game.
But, most poignantly, the great humanity of Bono-politique came out right after that, as U2 played “Miss Sarajevo,” and the screen turned into a scrawl of headshots of some of the most influential women in human history that continued through “Ultra Violet,” one of 10 songs on the setlist not from “The Joshua Tree.”
Bono dedicated the song to “the women next to us who we think we know” and those fighting for the rights to basic dignities like education and equality half a world away, as images of Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, Angela Merkel, Oprah, Jo Cox, Saffiya Khan, Moms Mabley, Ellen DeGeneres, Madeleine Albright and even former Texas Governor Ann Richards got onscreen shoutouts.
As much as he wanted to stay above the fray of culture war, it was as if Bono couldn’t resist taking a swipe at Trump after “One Tree Hill,” when a crazed old rabble-rouser in an even older Western movie clip tells a crowd gathered before him with pitchforks and torches, “You ask how to build that wall. You ask, and I tell you.”
The activist in Bono took over again later during U2’s encore when he challenged the crowd to make their political leaders nervous. “The power of the people should make their leaders nervous, not the other way around,” Bono exhorted, before injecting some political positivity into the show before “Beautiful Day” began the second encore.
“If you are an American taxpayer, you’re an AIDS activist,” Bono said, referencing the $34 billion in the U.S. budget (fiscal year 2017) for fighting HIV and AIDS both domestically and abroad, a jump of $5.7 billion since FY 2011 according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. “That’s 18 million lives saved. ... President Bush started it, and President Obama followed through with it. ... The left and the right working together is a beautiful thing.”
Numbers from the World Health Organization, which says that eight million lives have been saved by national HIV programs between the years of 2000-2015, would seem to corroborate Bono’s claim of 18 million lives saved, depending on the start date of what is still a worldwide epidemic.
If it’s all too exhausting a description of what was still a masterfully performed set, that’s understandable, but Bono met no resistance along the way. He did become vaguely apologetic for his persistent messaging when introducing the band quartet before the band briefly left the stage.
After giving some love to The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who have remained together since 1976, Bono said, “I thank them for allowing me to be their lead singer,” though the tenor of the two-minute speech felt more like he was thanking them for “putting up with” everything that comes with Bono being the face of the band.
And for those who’ve known the band since their first Dallas appearance at Club Bijou in 1981, which also got a mention in between songs, the slow burn of the rise of U2 has been enthralling, through all the sleight of hand and twists of fate.
Matthew Martinez: 817-390-7667; @MCTinez817
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