It could have easily been 1987 in San Diego Friday night when the iconic Irish band U2 performed its revolutionary album “The Joshua Tree” in its entirety, all 50 minutes and 11 seconds of it in chronological order.
It could have been 1987, but it wasn’t.
“Nothing’s changed; everything’s changed,” Bono declared after a rousing delivery of the album’s first song, “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
Building an entire concert around a 30-year-old album seemed, on its face, an emotional ploy to relive the past, dredging up memories and flirting with old passions. It was a dangerous proposition, and in the wrong hands, it could have been disastrous.
In U2’s hands, it was anything but.
“The Joshua Tree,” the band’s critically acclaimed fifth studio album, came of age in the era of Reagan and AIDS and heroin addiction, at a time of economic and political unrest and natural disasters.
It became crystal-clear Friday night that the band had zero interest living in the past. It plucked “The Joshua Tree” from its resting place in 1987 and dropped it in the heart of 2017.
Their message intact, the album’s songs breathed with a new sense of urgency, speaking to a world marred by the ravages of climate change and opioid addiction, at a time of political and economic upheaval.
And therein lies the majesty of Friday night’s SDCCU Stadium concert, which ended the second and final U.S. leg of the band’s “The Joshua Tree Tour 2017.” It begins the next leg in Mexico City on Oct. 3.
The band, which hadn’t performed in San Diego since 2005, could have easily fallen into a rote recitation of its songs, devoid of purpose and merely resplendent in spectacle. Instead, it put forth an argument - a declaration, really - that we are better than this.
“Whether you crossed the street, crossed the state or crossed the border, thank you and welcome!” Bono declared after opening the 22-song concert with “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the band’s debut single from 1983’s “War” album.
Early on, Bono promised “an epic night of rock ‘n’ roll,” and U2 delivered.
The 11 songs from “The Joshua Tree” sat in the middle of the evening’s set, book-ended by four songs released before 1987 and seven after it. The concert, which unfolded chronologically until the seven-song encore, proved powerful on many levels.
Musically, the band - Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. - still plays and performs with the potency its fans have come to know and love. Bono’s voice is as strong as ever, melodies sung with a great deal of deftness.
“The Joshua Tree” is top-heavy with familiar hits like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You,” and playing them out of order may have created better pacing, but it would’ve ruined the narrative.
U2, after all, is all about the narrative. Visually, the evening unfurled like a beautiful story, set against the backdrop of stunning images of America, its mountains and valleys and desert streets with no names.
The band launched the evening from a tree-shaped B stage. A gigantic screen on the main stage remained dark while the foursome performed “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” “Bad” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
As the last notes of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” faded into the crisp San Diego night, the first notes of “Where the Streets Have No Name” began to swell. The stadium soon became awash in red light, the giant screen revealing the silhouette of a Joshua Tree on a red background.
Standing in front of the massive high-resolution video screen - it’s 200 feet long and 45 feet tall - the members of U2 were dwarfed by such immensity, almost making them seem inconsequential. The band, of course, is hardly that.
In the annals of rock history, U2 - much like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles - has earned its place, and deservedly so.
Known for its activism as much as its music, U2 didn’t shy away from politics. On Friday night, Bono - leading the charge - preached like it was Sunday morning, touching on topics from war and women’s rights to immigration and the plight of refugees. He spoke of faith and hope and dreams and the idea of a perfect America - themes laid out in “The Joshua Tree,” circa 1987.
Later, “Beautiful Day,” “Elevation” and “Vertigo” brought the house down with pure and raw rock ‘n’ roll - with the propulsive “Elevation” sending the capacity crowd into a jumping frenzy.
Earlier, opening act Beck basked in the beauty of the evening, saying: “It’s a perfect night sky - I feel like I can touch it.”
Friday night, during a magnificently guided grand tour of “The Joshua Tree,” fans didn’t need to touch the sky. Thanks to U2, they were already in musical heaven.
U2: “The Joshua Tree Tour 2017" - San Diego setlist
- “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
- “New Year’s Day”
- “Pride (In the Name of Love)”
“The Joshua Tree”
- “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”
- “Miss Sarajevo”
- “Beautiful Day”
- “You’re the Best Thing About Me”
- “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”