When U2's masterpiece The Joshua Tree was released, the world was a very different place. They were the biggest and most important band in the world, at the fore of what seemed at the time to be a vanguard of change led by art. When they broke through at Live Aid in 1985, the attention of the world's biggest music artists was firmly focused on change: on toppling Reaganomics, of challenging Cold War orthodoxies, dismantling South African apartheid, even daring to imagine they could bring down the Berlin Wall. U2's thrilling, flag-waving performance at Red Rocks in Colorado, captured in a 1983 concert film, made "Sunday Bloody Sunday" into an iconic protest anthem. Four years later, The Joshua Tree was that, writ large, in album form.
U2 returned to Toronto Friday night a different band in a different time, but looking to recapture the powerful alchemy they brewed in their heyday. Sure, the return to their 30-year-old album could be seen as a cynical cash grab, but isn't our current global climate as fraught, as challenging and as in need of powerful, uniting messaging as it was in 1987, if not more so? Surely U2's return to their most serious work would resonate now more than ever.
On a stage whose sparseness belied the investment and planning that huge scale minimalism requires, first drummer Larry Mullen, Jr., then singer Bono and finally guitarist Edge and bassist Adam Clayton strode out to an extended catwalk. Edge began the iconic opening guitar riff of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and the crowd erupted. But instead of a powerful rallying cry against political oppression, the song came out as nothing more than a familiar classic rock cut. If there was ever a connection to the actual events of Bloody Sunday — when British soldiers opened fire on a peaceful protest in Northern Ireland in 1972 — in 2017, it's long removed from that context. No longer a revolutionary anthem, now it's just a rock hit, one of many the crowd would've liked to hear.
As a band, U2 remain remarkable: the original lineup has stayed together and shows are for the most part unenhanced by supplementary players. And each member plays the role in which they're cast: Mullen Jr., hammering his near-cymbal-less kit; Clayton wandering aimlessly, bored; Edge strolling in the opposite direction, leading the musical charge. And yet Bono has lost some biggest-star-in-the-world oomph; he relies more on audience sing-alongs and tends to drop an octave for high notes he commits to only when necessary.
When they ended the opening, pre-Joshua Tree salvo with The Unforgettable Fire's signature "Pride (In the Name of Love)," Bono's entreaties to the crowd to sing along — as they spontaneously would have back in the day — came off a little desperate. More so was scrolling the most famous text from the song's inspiration — co-opting Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech as a backdrop for your stadium rock show in 2017 doesn't come off as edgy. It seems tone-deaf.
The band then proceeded to the evening's main course, The Joshua Tree, in its entirety. As Colin Hanks will surely tell you, the album opens with its most iconic moments, and the crowd was with them from the liftoff of "Where the Streets Have No Name." "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" — one of the most desperate, pleading rock songs in history — came out unfortunately flat, as if at this point, they have, in fact, found it.
When Bono announced "Okay, side two!" — after all, not only do this band pre-date the internet, they actually pre-date CDs themselves so any original release format would indeed have a "side two" — it reminded me why I dislike bands who "play the album." The second half was actually more engaged and interesting, but a run from "In God's Country" through "One Tree Hill" ending with "Mothers of the Disappeared" is a real momentum killer in stadium show terms. Many attendees harboring fond memories of their favourite band seemed to have forgotten what a bummer they can be at times.
With the formal exercise over, the band's return to the stage made one thing clear when "Beautiful Day" prompted an audience climax bigger than anything outside of maybe "With or Without You": your fans, nearly 40 years into your career, only want to hear the hits. We no longer need you to be the shining beacon of hope, just an evening's distraction.
*An early version of this review mistakenly identified U2 as headliners at Live Aid. Exclaim! regrets the faulty memories of old people.
Order the Joshua Tree 30th anniversary remaster on a variety of formats via Umusic.