No red ballcap, but Bono still wants to make America great again. So he’s taken U2 on a tour across our damaged nation to perform “The Joshua Tree,” his 1987 love letter to the home of the brave that remains his band’s most enduring document. These are U2’s most capacious songs, and despite being filled with the best of intentions, there’s still lots of room for everyone to pile on in. “Whoever you voted for, you are welcome here tonight,” Bono declared at FedEx Field in Maryland on Tuesday evening. “We will find common ground reaching for higher ground.”
That’s nice, but the between-banter music didn’t feel like too strenuous of a reach. Instead, the band ceremonially delivered its signature blend of grandeur and uplift, hoping to repair the burning bridges of 2017 by transporting its adoring crowd 30 years back to a moment of global optimism, when prosperity was on the rise and the Cold War was drawing to a close. Strangely, U2 won the night the same way that Donald Trump won the presidency: by promising to improve tomorrow by making it feel more like yesterday. (Plus, there must be some morsel of cosmic significance in the fact that Trump first published “The Art of the Deal” in November of ’87, a mere eight months after “The Joshua Tree” sprouted.)
So this was a night of big promises, big songs and a big video screen. Three stories high, 50 yards wide and warped like the wave on a Coca-Cola can, it was used best during “With or Without You” as it held a single panoramic shot of a colossal, sun-baked canyon. Whenever the Edge answered Bono’s refrain — “And you give yourself away” — with his sparkling guitar line, it was as if the music were echoing off those giant cliff sides, and it might have raised every tiny hair on the back of your neck. And the Edge still makes his riffs bounce and chime in the direction of heaven, the same way Bono still leans into a big note like he’s opening a heavy door, the same way Larry Mullen Jr. still drums with a military-grade snap, the same way bassist Adam Clayton still appears to be enjoying the easiest job in rock-and-roll. Just as the tour promises, it’s the same old songs.
That made the concert’s non-“Joshua Tree” material — which flanked the album’s 11 cuts — feel more consequential. The band was making choices, and as it marched from the “blood-red sky” of “New Year’s Day” to “all the colors” of “Beautiful Day,” its youthful exhortations burned warmer than its grown-up group hugs. The show’s most exquisite moment came almost straightaway during “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” an anthem from 1983 that throws a riddle at the war machine: “How long must we sing this song?” When Bono tweaked the line “I won’t heed the battle call,” by rearranging the melody and tailoring it to the occasion, he was tacitly renewing a pacifist vow.
Not that his speechifying was anywhere near as subtle. He addressed the importance of ending global poverty, fighting for women’s rights, solving the world’s refugee crisis, and stopping AIDS — important causes, all — and he thanked Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Republican Rep. Kay Granger (Tex.), Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of the Archdiocese of Washington, and Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank. At one point, he played clips of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan giving similar speeches, presumably to expose us to that higher common ground he had promised earlier, but maybe only reminding us how a two-party system has rotted our democracy.
Still, Bono seems to believe that our planet’s busted systems can and will be repaired, which makes it hard to decide whether he’s a visionary, a saint, a power-groupie or a fool. His vague, bipartisan, ambiently patriotic rah-rah onstage Tuesday didn’t help clarify any of that. After singing “Pride (In the Name of Love),” U2’s eternally exhilarating eulogy for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he wondered out loud, “Maybe the dream is just telling us to wake up.”
The music certainly wasn’t telling us to wake up. It was as beautiful, righteous, wide-open and inviting as it was in 1987. The kind of music that makes you feel like you’ve done a good deed simply by diving into it. This is the problem that U2 doesn’t want to — and probably can’t — solve. Comfort doesn’t bring change.