Photo: CHONA KASINGER, NYT
U2 never had a problem delivering grand entrances filled with blunt religious symbolism.
The band walked down an aisle one by one on Wednesday night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara as if they were in a wedding processional, each joining an extended instrumental opening of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” When lead singer Bono arrived, heavenly spotlights shown upon him from behind and above, fog machines adding to the metaphor, as if he might get raptured at any moment.
That’s what it felt like to watch U2 in the mid-to-late 1980s, when the band members were arguably at their peak of both vainglory and musical excellence. And the band did their best to replicate that experience, for a crowd that seemed to want to return to that place more than anything.
It was the band’s third U.S. stop in the 2017 “The Joshua Tree” Tour, which includes a mid-set beginning-to-end performance of the band’s breakthrough 1987 album.
But the entire concert catered to the audience of 50,000, almost all of whom appeared to be between the ages of 43 and 49. (With a handful of children to document the night in future parental eulogies.) Every one of the 16 pre-encore selections was recorded in 1983, 1984 or 1987; if you owned a stereo during the Ronald Reagan presidency, chances are you made out, weathered a bad breakup or sampled your first Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler while listening to one of these songs.
Bono’s voice was in fine form as the opener “Sunday Bloody Sunday” led to “New Year’s Day” from the 1983 “War” album – opting in to more high notes than he opted out of. “A Sort of Homecoming” and “Bad” from “The Unforgettable Fire” were a comparative drag, before the band regained momentum with “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and launched into “The Joshua Tree” album.
The bad news was a botched beginning of “With Or Without You,” with what appeared to be a rogue Adam Clayton bass line that had Bono missing verses, then scrambling to salvage the second half of the song. Some of the lesser-known tracks shined the brightest – particularly the energetic “Bullet the Blue Sky” and building momentum of “Exit,” which has always been at least 40 percent better live than it was on the album.
Anyone who timed their bathroom break for “Running to Stand Still” missed out on one of the night’s high points. The track gained new life with The Edge switching from guitar to keyboard and Bono’s voice, a little more husky with age and the cold night air, adding a lovely vulnerability.
The stage show built as the night went on, with the band performing on a spare center platform without digital accessories for the first five songs, before turning on a panoramic video screen that had the square footage and dimensions of an aircraft carrier runway.
The visuals were gorgeous but skewed too heavily toward the literal, with a driver’s-eye view of an endless road for “Where the Streets Have No Name.” The Irish band has always had a fascination with the U.S., and their interest seems to now focus on this nation’s rustic barns.
But by the time the band opened a generous six-song encore with “Beautiful Day,” any cynicism in the stadium was raptured away as well.
Bono’s familiarity with the crowd gained momentum as the night went on, shouting out the head of Glide Memorial Church in the middle of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (“The Reverand Cecil Williams is in the house!”) and ending the concert with a personal thank you to what seemed like every local tech pioneer who ever lived.
The night concluded with a new song called “The Little Things That Give You Away,” which may or may not show up without notice on your iPhone some time later this year. It’s a 2017 track, but it sounded as if it could have been transported from 1987.
At that point, there’s wasn’t much that could ruin the general good mood. As the audience headed toward the literal “exit,” it still sounded like there was music in the air.