I usually make it a habit to write these articles on one specific song or a group of songs that share a common element, but today, I thought that I’d do something different. For the past several months, since the beginning of the year, really, we’ve been building up to the opening night of Joshua Tree Tour 2017. Fortunately, because I could barely stand to wait for one minute more, that event finally came to pass just a couple of nights ago. I wasn’t able to attend the concert, sadly (“my” show comes up in exactly a month from today, as I write this) but I’ve been spending a lot of time online since Friday night’s show, and I’ve read, heard, and seen enough to form some opinions of my own about U2’s most recent endeavor. Be warned that this article contains spoilers galore, so if you’re trying to approach the show with fresh eyes and ears, you might want to skip this one.
To start with, the show looks great. The band plays with a giant screen behind them at the main stage, and then there’s a ramp extending out from the main stage that has a B-stage that is shaped like the titular tree itself (the “tree-stage”). The aforementioned giant screen is absolutely gorgeous and unbelievably clear and sharp. The images that are shown on the screen, mostly video footage from long-time U2 collaborator Anton Corbijn, are interesting but don’t steal attention from the band itself, just as it should be.
At first, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a set-list that was dominated to such an extent by a single album. U2 has never played an entire album in a single concert before, and I was afraid that there wouldn’t be enough diversity to keep things interesting with the focus falling so squarely on The Joshua Tree. It turns out that the set-list works pretty well. The show starts off with a short five song set of songs that preceded 1987, performed from the tree-stage. These songs are taken from the two main albums that U2 released directly before The Joshua Tree, 1983’s War and 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. These songs are performed in chronological order, with the War material coming before that from The Unforgettable Fire. Consisting mostly of U2’s earliest hits (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “New Year’s Day”, and “Pride (In the Name of Love)”), this short segment also contains one special surprise – a sparkling new arrangement of “A Sort of Homecoming”. Personally, I think that the new instrumentation sounds fantastic, and that it does a wonderful job of bringing the song into the twenty-first century. Also of note in this part of the set is that New Year’s Day seems to have been pitched lower than it has been on previous tours. The piano isn’t as striking, and the whole thing feels a bit…off. Not necessarily bad, but different in a way that I wasn’t prepared for.
The next portion of the show consists of The Joshua Tree played in sequence from the main stage, and the big part of that that fans are likely curious about is the live debut of “Red Hill Mining Town”. The new horn part from the 2017 mix is present in the live version, which didn’t surprise me nearly as much as the fact that this song was played on piano, instead of featuring Edge on guitar as the studio version does. Bono does an admirable job on the vocal, which some fans might have been concerned about, but the song seems to have lost a lot of it’s power and gravitas by being transferred to piano. Not a let down, per se, since I didn’t really know what to expect, but not the highlight that I thought it might be. Some songs that did stand out from this portion of the show were “Trip Through Your Wires”, with it’s dynamic energy, and “Exit”, which Bono absolutely killed.
The final segment of the show was the encore, which consisted of songs that were released after The Joshua Tree. There was a new, subtly different arrangement of “Beautiful Day” which sounded mostly good, although the middle eight got a little bit muddled and confusing. I was surprised by the inclusion of “Elevation”, over another hit like “Vertigo”, and also by “Ultra Violet”, which just enjoyed the spotlight a few years ago on the 360 tour. “One” was a no-brainer to be included, as it has been played at nearly every appearance by U2 or a member thereof since the song’s release twenty-six years ago. When I initially read that “Miss Sarajevo” was performed, my interest was piqued, and when the song initially started I was even more excited by the new adaptation that sounded like it had more in common with the original studio version, including some lovely guitar work from Edge. Unfortunately, “Miss Sarajevo” turned out to be the one song of the night that I was genuinely disappointed with. The song’s climactic opera solo was merely a piped in, pre-recorded Pavarotti, instead of a live performance by Bono. This song has the power to totally captivate a live audience, but I’m afraid that the canned opera part simply doesn’t cut it. I hope that either Bono will sing the solo at future concerts, or that the band will drop the song entirely in favor of something else.
The good news is that the night ended on a high note, when U2 debuted a brand new, never-before-heard song titled “The Little Things That Give You Away”. Bono introduced it as a “Song of Experience”, and it is a definite winner. If you haven’t heard it yet, I recommend that you go to You-Tube immediately and check it out. The song starts out slowly but builds to a dramatic pinnacle with an exciting guitar solo. The vocal melody is gorgeous, especially on the chorus, and the song makes me hope even more fervently that U2 release Songs of Experience sooner rather than later. On the balance, I give the band high marks for The Joshua Tree Tour 2017. I think that the first night out was a success and, as we’ve seen on prior tours, it’s only going to get better as the band get a few more shows under their collective belt.