This was a cool way for U2 to start its show at FedEx Field in Landover on Tuesday: The recorded music faded, the lights went down and Larry Mullen Jr. appeared on the broad, empty stage in the northwest end zone, before a giant screen showing a single Joshua Tree.
He strode down a walkway to the smaller club stage at the field’s center, settled behind his drums, absorbed the rising cheers and began to pound out a familiar tattoo. This brought forth The Edge, his unmistakable chiming guitar raising chills. And then Bono, strutting out in black — the crowd now ecstatic — with his fearful, prophetic warning: “I can’t believe the news today … I can’t close my eyes and make it go away …”
Of course, that couplet is now nearly 35 years old. The news Bono found unbelievable in 1983 — violent sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland — has faded from the headlines. For decades, U2 has strived to explore new areas in sound and art, to expand the role of the popular artist in the public forum, and, in recent years, to remain relevant.
Now the band is embarked on its first sustained exploration of its past — a move members had resisted. “We don't want to ever be a heritage act,” The Edge said a few years back. “It might happen, but we'll go kicking and screaming into that mode.”
The challenge the Dublin band has placed before itself on this tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of “The Joshua Tree” album — possibly, the corner into which it has painted itself — is to make the familiar music of years gone by, much of it rooted in time, mean something in 2017.
U2 makes it work by marrying the words and images of the past with the news of today.
Bono slips references to reality TV into “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and “One boy washed up on an empty beach” into “Pride (In the Name of Love).” “Miss Sarajevo,” a 1995 song about the underground resistance in the besieged capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is now “Miss Syria (Sarajevo),” and comes with an original film shot at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
And Bono talks a lot. He spoke of the shootings last week at the congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., and expressed gratitude for Rep. Steve Scalise’s recovery. He noted Tuesday was World Refugee Day, and thanked America for accepting the Irish. He said hello to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican Rep. Kay Granger and former national security adviser James Jones.
Bono sought to create an inclusive experience: Whether you come from the right, the left or the middle, he told the crowd, “You are welcome here tonight. … We will find common ground in the higher ground.” But the pal of the Clintons and the Obamas also promoted causes popularly associated more closely with the left: refugee resettlement, feminism, campaigns against poverty and AIDS.
This helps: U2 is really good at big, loud rock ’n’ roll. The Edge’s piercing, ringing, rippling guitar. Adam Clayton’s chunky bass. Mullen’s martial drums. Bono’s soaring, searching, stadium-ready vocals. Maybe they’re the only band you’d actually prefer to see in a venue so large.
The set was organized as a straight chronology, with a full rendering of The Joshua Tree” — the 1987 album that propelled U2 from huge to immortal — at the center.
The band started out on the smaller field stage, producing high-energy readings of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” from 1983’s* “War,” and “Bad” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” from “The Unforgettable Fire.”
This was the preamble, from their days as an ambitious, industrious young quartet from Dublin clearly headed somewhere. At its conclusion, they joined in a line, acknowledged the crowd, bid farewell to their earlier selves and retreated to the broader end zone stage.
There they set about re-creating the powerhouse opening half of “The Joshua Tree”: faithful renderings of “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; a feedback-heavy “With or Without You” and an apocalyptic “Bullet the Blue Sky”; “Running to Stand Still,” now arranged around piano. That’s about as strong a Side 1 as you’ll find this side of the Beatles.
The second half of the album, on disc and in concert, is a bit more draggy. Bono seemed to acknowledge as much when he noted that the band hadn’t played the songs live much.
Reviewing the setlist after the show, I saw several songs I quite enjoy: “Red Hill Mining Town,” “In God’s Country,” “Trip Through Your Wires,” “One Tree Hill.”
On Tuesday, though, the section felt long. It was probably the stretched-out “Exit” and “Mothers of the Disappeared.” But I like those, too.
The encore — songs since “The Joshua Tree,” a kind of postamble — brought some relief. “One” was a bit ragged, but “Beautiful Day,” “Elevation” and “Vertigo” were as joyous as you’d want them to be.
“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 Syria (Sarajevo)”
“Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
*Correction: U2 released the album “War” in 1983, not 1982. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.