As the lights dimmed all around FedEx Field in Washington, D.C., those in the arena collectively caught our breath. We knew what was to come, but we just didn’t know how they’d do it. Then, piece by piece, it was unveiled and it was nuclear. First Larry Mullen, Jr. appeared at a drum kit playing a sweetly familiar syncopated beat on a secondary stage in the middle of the ground audience. Then The Edge came down a runway to that same stage chiming that chilling riff that gave us awesome shivers. Then, with Adam Clayton following closely behind with his bass, Bono appeared walking down the same runway singing lyrics that are just as haunting, but for different reasons, today as they were 35 years ago when “Sunday Bloody Sunday” first dropped: “I can’t believe the news today. I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.”
Looking around the arena, listening to those standing around me, the passion of the 2017 crowd singing with U2 was not eroded at all. Given the current social environment, singing at the top of our voices, “Tonight, we can be as one!” became a defiant statement of unity, an affirmation of separating ourselves from the angry, irrational, and divisive public conversation outside of the arena. “Whoever you voted for,” Bono said. “You are welcome here tonight.” This year, the band went out to the road to celebrate the 30 anniversary of the release of The Joshua Tree. But, given that U2 have long said that it was intended to be an honest love letter to America, the tour is more than a musical spectacle, though they do put on an awesomely good show.
After playing four pre-Joshua Tree songs, including an introduction to “Bad” in which Bono implored us to let go of whatever would keep us from having a moment of peaceful presence during the concert, the band then took to their big stage with a massive landscape screen (three stories high and 50 yards wide) that throughout the concert would backlight the band with loops, movies, and live footage of the band. While singing lyrics the now iconic songs, the older and more aware band stood in front of contemporary images of refugees and immigrants, landscapes, dancers, and various renderings of the American flag. It was spectacular for the simple and understated effect of a larger than life medium.
The band was as tight as as ever. The riffs elicited as primal a feeling as ever. The melodies and the lyrics were as powerful as the first time I ever heard them, only now I was singing along to every word. Occasionally Bono changed a melody or a lyric for recognized emphasis, like when he highlighted his pacifist vow, “I won’t heed the battle call,” by changing the melody, or when the band came out for their encore and changed “Miss Sarajevo” to “Miss Syria.” It regenerated the music, a renewal that many of us so deeply long for in other places where big ideas and challenges need to be discussed.
Anyone who has ever truly heard U2’s music is familiar with their moral and spiritual earnestness. Anyone who has seen U2 in concert has watched that same earnestness morph into a religious experience. Their lyrics reveal a sincere and well-informed Christian world view. When I say that, I’m not talking about the shallow, power hungry, politically compromised modern Evangelicalism. I’m talking about the historic, honesty-first faith of those who take the example and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth seriously.
Likewise, their admiration of the United States has never been because they admired American military strength, but because they actually respect the vision of America as a city on a hill, conceived in liberty and justice—equality for all. More than mere entertainment, a U2 concert, and The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour in particular, is more like a revival—a call to remember that the virtues of our founding are truly noble and worth pursuing above all other interests, even self-interest.
America’s “liberty and justice for all” concept was on larger than life display, even before the band took the stage at FedEx Field. On the stage’s huge screen, poems and prose from some of America’s great writers—Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Alexander, Naomi Shihab Nye, James Dickey, Sherman Alexie, Pedro Pietri, Rita Dove, and more—predisposed the audience to the possibility that we were gathered to for a purpose higher than entertainment. The writings all demanded meditations about the meaning of liberty and justice as national values, challenging our collective actions that often ignore them.
The criticisms that many have thrown at U2 over the years were that the band was somehow self-righteous, hypocritical, and egotistical. These were directed at Bono, as the frontman, in particular. These criticisms, of course, are themselves hypocritical, usually betraying the guilt that none of us do enough good with our lives--and to think that we do only highlights our lack of humility, that most important of virtues. The criticisms could also come from believing that U2 are just naive idealists, a criticism which usually only comes from those who have already sold out their ideals. Disagree or agree with the positions U2 takes on human rights and justice, but don’t blame them for being aware of big issues in the world and trying to use their influence to right wrongs. They’ve done this their whole career, since they were playing bars in Dublin.
In 1987 TheJoshua Tree album was huge. 30 years later it could have become just a historical artifact. But against the current social and political climate, it was a stark reminder that we are not yet as truly good as we could be, our ideals are not yet realized. But right now we need idealists more than ever. The Edge once famously said that he didn’t want U2 ever to become “a heritage act.” Right now, U2 and The Joshua Tree are more relevant than ever.