U2 pushes a message of unity at dazzling Texas tour debut in Houston

If you go to see concerts very often, you’ve probably gotten used to the “anniversary tour” concept: Just in the past month alone, both Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and the Damned played shows in Austin to celebrate their 40th year as a band. The highest-profile such tour this year comes from U2, which played Houston’s NRG Stadium on Wednesday night for the first of two Texas shows on “The Joshua Tree Tour 2017,” marking 30 years since the release of the group’s first No. 1 album.

(L-R) Adam Clayton, Bono, Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge of U2 perform on The Joshua Tree Tour at NRG Stadium in Houston on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. SUZANNE CORDEIRO FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

There’s no getting around the element of nostalgia embedded in such an exercise, so it’s best to simply embrace it, and try to grow something from it. That seems to be U2’s goal in revisiting the record which marked the peak of the Irish quartet’s fascination with the culture, geography and political ideals of America. In this case, the nostalgia isn’t just for 11 songs that the band’s longtime fans know by heart. It’s also for an era in which a rock band could become so broadly popular that stadium-sized venues are required to meet the demand.

PHOTOS: U2 in Houston

Thus what we’re nostalgic for, at least in part, is the concept of commonality, at a time when art, culture and politics tend to pull us all in endlessly varying directions. While there are certainly upsides to superstardom being spread with a broader stylistic brush in 2017 — accommodating sounds ranging from Beyonce to Lady Gaga to Adele to One Direction — the biggest names in music today still cater mainly to niches, even if they’re very large niches. U2 is, arguably, the final heir to an age of universality ushered in by Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

From the outset of Wednesday’s concert, the band aimed straight at that all-for-one target. “We find common good by reaching for higher ground,” U2 singer Bono declared in the midst of “Pride,” the last in a three-song opening stretch of early-career classics that preceded the run of “The Joshua Tree” in its entirety.

Bursting forth just past 8:40 p.m. with Larry Mullen Jr.’s signature battle-cry drum solo of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the band took the stage one by one: Guitarist The Edge marched from the main risers to a Joshua Tree-shaped island jutting out into the crowd as he added his clarion-call guitar riff, followed by Bono and finally bassist Adam Clayton. “New Year’s Day” followed, feeding the fever-pitch frenzy in a full house of devotees who stood for the vast majority of the two-hours-plus performance.

Much was made in the tour buildup about the towering, 45-foot-high LED screen stretching the entire 200-foot width of the stage behind the band, and it was as spectacular as advertised. Curved to slightly distort the images while aesthetically suggesting an unspooled roll of old-school film, the screen provided a brilliant hi-res canvas of light for the projections of photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn, who created the iconic imagery that adorned “The Joshua Tree” album cover and gatefold three decades ago.

(L-R) Adam Clayton, Bono, Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge of U2 perform on The Joshua Tree Tour at NRG Stadium in Houston on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. SUZANNE CORDEIRO FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As the show continued, the backdrops changed from splendid natural images of the California desert to sociopolitical subjects as well as artful real-time live footage of the band. The latter was essential in such a huge venue: If you were in the upper reaches of NRG Stadium, the four band members probably looked like ants, but the LED-screen images were both larger and more imaginative than standard jumbotron blow-ups.

As much as going big was inevitably part of the tour presentation, though, what ultimately hits home about U2’s identity is how small the band remains at its core. “The Joshua Tree Tour” is really more about focus than sprawl. For all the musical grandeur of show-makers like Lyle Lovett’s ever-extending Large Band or the bursting-at-the-seams talent of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, to name a couple of prominent examples, U2 still does everything with just four musicians onstage, the same four who first teamed up as teens in the late 1970s.

Further, this isn’t a Springsteenian four-hour marathon, but rather a well-paced couple of hours carefully built around a central theme. If “The Joshua Tree” was the musical heart, America was the spiritual center. While the band took direct aim at Donald Trump — at one point screening actual footage from the 1958 TV Western “Trackdown” in which a huckster named, yes, Trump, tries to con the townpeople into a wall-building scheme — they also reached out to praise both Democrat and Republican leaders.

Bono took special note, in Texas, to commend George W. Bush’s actions to help end the AIDS epidemic. And images of both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton appeared onscreen as part of an extended salute to dozens of pioneering women throughout history that accompanied the second-encore inspirational rocker “Ultraviolet (Light My Way).”

Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and singer Bono of U2 perform on The Joshua Tree Tour at NRG Stadium in Houston on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. SUZANNE CORDEIRO FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Taken as a whole, the band’s message was clear: Both conservative and progressive ideals helped to make America great, but the nation’s current president seeks to divide rather than unite. In the end, U2’s plea was for “One,” exemplified by their song with that title arriving as the culmination of the show. (A forward-looking denouement was “The Little Things That Give You Away,” the lone new song the group has played so far on this tour.)

“This country is a tremendous country,” Bono prefaced as “One” began. “There’s nothing you can’t do when you come together as one.” It is, perhaps, a naive take on an utterly divided 21st-century America. But for U2, it remains the rallying point, no matter how long they must sing their song.

Anthemic-Americana band the Lumineers opened at 7 p.m. and got a warm reception from concertgoers who continued to file in throughout their 50-minute set. If they weren’t as much of an envelope-pusher as some of the acts U2 has taken on the road in the past, their mix of chamber-folk (with standout cellist Neyla Pekarek) and indie-rock clearly won over some new fans and thrilled those who were already converts going in.

Both bands play a second Texas show at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Friday.

Set list:
1. Sunday Bloody Sunday
2. New Year’s Day
3. Pride (in the Name of Love)
— “The Joshua Tree” begins —
4. Where the Streets Have No Name
5. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
6. With or Without You
7. Bullet the Blue Sky
8. Running to Stand Still
9. Red Hill Mining Town
10. In God’s Country
11. Trip Through Your Wires
12. One Tree Hill
13. Exit
14. Mothers of the Disappeared
— Encore 1 —
15. Miss Sarajevo
16. Bad
— Encore 2 —
17. Beautiful Day
18. Elevation
19. Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
20. One
21. The Little Things That Give You Away

Author: Peter Blackstock

Music writer for the Austin American-Statesman and austin360.com. Twitter: @Blackstock360

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