Sunday night at Ford Field, U2 spent the evening looking back, jumping in the time machine for a run-through of its 1987 triumph, “The Joshua Tree.”
“Here you still are, here we still are,” U2 frontman Bono told the packed-but-not-quite-capacity crowd early in the show. “Nothing has changed, everything’s changed.”
On Sunday, you could feel how much has changed.
Since forming more than 40 years ago, U2 has always mattered. There have been creative slumps, sure, but the band always found a way to charge through them, and there was never a question of where it stood in the conversation. Biggest Band in the World, table for four please.
Currently, however, the band seems rudderless, still stymied from the fiasco surrounding the release of its 2014 album “Songs of Innocence,” which was famously loaded onto people’s phones without their permission. U2 has always been an innovator, but that tone deaf maneuver hurt the group, and for the first time in four decades the megaband proved vulnerable.
Rather than continuing to stay the course and push forward, U2 retreated, building a tour around “The Joshua Tree” on its 30th anniversary and spending the year playing the album front-to-back at every tour stop. Forget the fact that there probably hasn’t been a U2 show in 30 years that didn’t include “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You,” the album’s immortal three opening tracks. This tour is about wrapping up in a warm blanket of nostalgia and letting the memories take over.
Aside from “The Joshua Tree,” the band bookended its two-hour show with a handful of favorites from its catalog, but the most recent song that was performed pre-dated the Obama administration. The band has recently teased new material, and a new album is supposed to be out by year’s end, but that’s not what this show was about. Sunday was all about the good old days.
Yes, there was talk of the issues of the day, and Bono repeatedly spoke about America, its power, its beauty and its acceptance of all people. “America means everything to this band,” Bono said near the close of the show, trumpeting the country as well as the idea on which it was formed.
He also spoke to the strength of the collective, slipping in the words “people have the power to wrestle it away from fools” during “Beautiful Day,” one of several thinly veiled references to Donald Trump’s presidency. (At one point, a short video clip from a 1950s TV show depicting a character named Trump who intended to gain favor in a small town by building a wall was shown, though it lacked any further context in the show – like they wanted to say something but stopped short.)
But Bono’s comments mostly came off as platitudes, and lacked the sort of heft or depth to really make an impression. And when he spoke of Detroit being “a city of invention, a city of reinvention, a city of history and… the city of the future,” it was unclear to what futuristic properties he was referring, or if he was just saying nice things to elicit cheers from the crowd.
Thankfully, the band still has a powerhouse catalog and the production wherewithal to create a seismic event feel. The show began with drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. walking out and sitting down behind a drumkit on a small stage situated at the center of Ford Field. He kicked into “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and was joined by the other members of the band, one-by-one. They were handsomely lit – bathed in red hues during “Sunday,” and in shades of blue during “New Year’s Day” – and they filled Ford Field with their massive, crisp sound.
The band spent several more songs camped out at the satellite stage before retreating to the main stage for “The Joshua Tree,” backed by a gargantuan video wall that showed images of empty roads, desert photography and images of rustic Americana. It was a striking, stunning production that the band let work for them. Bono, who in the past has run laps on stage to get a rise out of the crowd, backed off his antics and gave a dialed down but fully confident performance, the restraint he showed working in his favor.
The gems of the show were the “Joshua Tree” nuggets that have been pushed aside over the years – the gentle ballad “Running to Stand Still,” the mini-anthem “In God’s Country.” For “Joshua Tree” closer “Mothers of the Disappeared,” Patti Smith came out as a surprise guest, and as a Detroit mother herself, gave a shout out to all the Detroit mothers in the crowd. (A gushing Bono thanked Smith profusely for her cameo, saying he never would have written “The Joshua Tree” without her profound influence.)
Following the completion of “The Joshua Tree,” the band came out to pump out a few more crowd pleasers – “Beautiful Day,” “Elevation,” “Vertigo” – and this is where the evening began to wane. Having already wrapped the nostalgia portion of the evening, the band could have rolled out something new but chose the easy route instead. (If the band stands by “Songs of Innocence,” aka the iPhone album, it sure didn’t show it.)
“The Joshua Tree” is an album about searching, about a journey of the spirit that is never quite fulfilled. That’s what makes it so enduring. U2 has been on a similar quest for decades, but now seems satisfied with looking back rather than looking ahead. Thirty years later, they found what they were looking for. But it was the adventure that was the fun part.