Over four decades into their career, 2017 has turned out to be a year of firsts for U2. Rarely ones to look back, they’ve both launched a 30th-anniversary release of their seminal 1987 record, The Joshua Tree, as well as a massive, still-expanding world tour. And Friday night, they headlined their very first U.S. festival when they took the stage at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
When the Irish rockers released The Joshua Tree, the 11 songs were remarkably combative, existential, audacious — which is to say, yes, very U2. The scene they depict on the album is bleak, one of fading hope and inescapable chaos. But in the world the collection has been reborn into on this tour, the overwhelming longing and dismay resonate just as well. Bono’s fascination with the disparity between the America in front of his eyes and the City Upon A Hill the country once fashioned itself to be still cracks loudly.
At 11 p.m., the band boarded the main stage with startlingly sparse production. Just a few lights outlined the famous figures and, as they have done along the run, they warmed up the crowd with a small set of songs that were each released before The Joshua Tree. Here, they tapped War‘s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day,” off War (1983) plus “Pride (in the Name of Love)” off 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. The last tune also cued the singer-activist’s first socially conscious aside of the evening: “Some people may think Martin Luther King’s dream is dead,” he said, “but not at Bonnaroo tonight…but maybe the dream is just telling us to wake up.”
A moment later, their epic, LED-light display flickered on as uniquely American illustrations and scenes, including Anton Corbjin’s desert photography (also featured on the original album cover), flooded the Farm. The Joshua Tree was underway. And for the duration of the performance, it was the display that ruled the show. U2 has never been one for subtlety, and their message was clear as ever here: The Joshua Tree was far bigger than anything the group had done before it — and it has cast a long shadow across all that they’ve attempted since.
The band’s only two U.S. No.1 singles are housed on that record: “With Or Without You” — during the performance of that track, Bono declared, “These songs belong to you now!” — and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Both were met with thunderous excitement and prompted enthusiastic sing-alongs. “Bullet the Blue Sky,” a song about American violence abroad and another highlight of the evening, was, at the time of its debut, a surprising dovetail into the blues for the band. Those grooves felt totally at home in the hills of Tennessee, and the desperate-to-dance crowd responded in kind. He dedicated “One Tree Hill” to the eldest daughter of Chris Cornell, who died last month at age 52.
Of course, bringing a 30-year-old album to a massive festival like Bonnaroo, which is attended by a large swath of music fans, is not without its challenges — one being that many attendees weren’t even born when The Joshua Tree released. As a result, there were several moments where it felt like there was a genuine disconnect between the material and its audience.
That energy shifted, however, as soon as the group launched into their encore. U2’s final batch included “Beautiful Day,” off 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind — with a nod to the headliner that will command the fest’s Saturday evening, they included a snippet of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” — along with “Elevation,” also off Behind, and “Vertigo,” off 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. They closed with a one-two punch of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” and “One,” both off 1991’s Achtung Baby. The crowd wasn’t shy in welcoming the familiar tunes, something that wasn’t lost on the frontman. “What an extraordinary thing Bonnaroo is,” he said before taking his final bow. “Thank you for naming it after me.”