U2's current tour celebrating The Joshua Tree's 30th anniversary holds up what many consider to be the Irish band's finest artistic achievement. But the folk-flavored rock record is also among the greatest commercial achievements in all of music – selling a reported 25 million copies worldwide.
Both milestones were on display Friday during what showman-in-chief Bono unflinchingly described as an "epic night of rock 'n' roll" at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
U2 being U2, they brought a jaw-dropping screen as wide as a football field too. Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. expertly hit oversized action figure poses to accompany tens of thousands of Gen-Xers' grainy Facebook posts. They alternated between a smaller center stage and one as big as the screen. Aside from the performance of their hit album, the set was bookended with proven stadium hits spanning from "New Year's Day" up through "Vertigo." (Not this year's Kendrick Lamar collaboration, though.)
The Joshua Tree encapsulates an Irish band obsessed with the U.S. – 10 of those 25 million albums were delivered here, after all – and bringing it back confirms the feeling is still mutual three decades on. (If there were any sour grapes about the Songs of Innocence iPhone debacle, they passed undetected.) Indeed, "Allow us to kiss your ass," Bono said on behalf of his band to the packed-to-the-ceiling crowd. Not quite "Thanks for buying this album and making us rich," but close.
U2 being U2, the nostalgic pomp was punctuated by reminders of the struggles felt nowhere near the luxury boxes. Before playing The Joshua Tree in sequence, they tuned up with protest turned deadly in Ireland ("Sunday Bloody Sunday"), and soon slid to the upbeat sing-along inspired by Martin Luther King getting gunned down ("Pride [In the Name of Love]").
They then revisited Joshua Tree's vivid descriptions of America's wide-open spaces – as well as systemic racism, military conflicts, opioids, class warfare, and religious unrest. So yeah, the subject matter has aged pretty well.
While still a crowd favorite, the overly familiar "With or Without You" couldn't compete with the freshness and drama of the album's deeper cuts. With the Edge reveling in Jimi Hendrix-style axe-ioms, "Bullet the Blue Sky" absolutely scorched. Brass-accented "Red Hill Mining Town" played bigger than its album equivalent, and the blistering "Exit" was as dark a moment as "Beautiful Day" was bright later on. "Trip Through Your Wires" was a reminder of U2 once even had alt-country potential. Now who needs another Bud Light?
The night wagged some fingers – Bono did not go as far as to mention Philando Castile or Justine Damond by name – but tipped plenty of hats too. Nods to "sweet" Prince colored the encore, with lines from "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," "Let's Go Crazy," and "Purple Rain."
The final three songs of the night were all from 1991's alt-rock departure, Achtung Baby. (Perhaps testing the waters for a 30-year anniversary tour in 2021?) During the lounge lizard special "Mysterious Ways," Bono invited a black female audience member to come dance onstage. To follow, "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" featured a slideshow of extraordinary women throughout herstory, including slain Charlottesville protester Heather Heyer.
U2 being U2, there are limits to what you can pack into an epic night of rock 'n' roll when humanitarianism and "just playing the hits" are both nightly goals. Most know better than attempting it at all. Notably The Joshua Tree was U2's final statement before their music started shifting away from as much overt social commentary and more towards holding a mirror up to themselves.
It wasn't possible (or recommended) to fully ease into escapist bliss with a Red Cross logo staring back from a 200-foot screen during "One." But the night often came close.
Sunday Bloody Sunday
New Year's Day
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
In God's Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Mothers of the Disappeared
Ultraviolet (Light My Way)