In 2001 I attended one of my first big rock concerts at what was the MCI Center in Washington, DC. While a great band with an amazing repertoire I was (at the time) a really a big fan of their most recent album. It was a great concert. I had a lot of fun.
Five months later I went back for more. This time, we were a little further north at the Baltimore Arena and unlike the first concert which was an enjoyable experience, this night filled an emotional need, converting me for life. The band, of course, was U2 and that second concert was one month and eight days after the horror of 9/11. I didn’t realize it until I walked out of the Arena but those two hours helped make sense of a month of chaos and insanity.
In the sixteen years since I’ve sought to re-visit U2 in DC, Chicago, Boston, and most recently for the seventh time at Metlife Stadium in New Jersey.
As with the previous six shows, the band did not disappoint (though it is hard to follow up floor seats for seats in the boonies) and in the end it was more than the music that caught my attention.
U2 concerts always embrace a level of visual storytelling to support the music. Previous tours have included video projections, stages shaped like hearts, and in the case of the 360 tour a massive claw like spaceship that took up a large part of the stadium floor.
Naturally, the starting point for this tour (celebrating the 30th anniversary of their album The Joshua Tree) was the imagery found in their 1987 album: images from the desert with the tree standing tall and graceful, both on the massive digital screen but also in the extended “B” stage on the floor.
For an album that is quietly intense, the visualizations for both The Joshua Tree and songs bookending the album elevated the music and resulted in a multi-sensory experience. Unlike previous shows there wasn’t quite the spectacle, but there was storytelling. From honoring history and herstory, to a streaming screen of poetry connected to the earth before the show, the production design emphasized the natural and the importance of humanity wherever possible.
As the final chords of Mothers of the Disappeared (Night hangs like a prisoner // Stretched over black and blue // Hear their heartbeat // We hear their heartbeat) rang through the stadium Bono thanked the audience saying that in the thirty years since the album’s release the meaning of the songs had changed – for the band and for those who had flocked to hear them.
As for myself, in the years since I first attended a U2 concert my understanding and connection to their music has changed. I am moved by Stay, pumped by drumbeats and violins that compose Sunday, Bloody, Sunday, and rock out to Mysterious Ways – and I still have a passion for every single song on All That You Can’t Leave Behind (yes, even Wild Honey).
But sometimes some songs have a stronger impact than others – this year it was a song that carries allusions to the Statue of Liberty —In God’s Country. In his introduction to the song Bono said the following: “We are still newcomers here ourselves, just getting to know these songs and there’s been some surprises. Songs can change in their meaning, or certainly a song can mean more now than then for some reason. The next song for example, can be about how a landscape can change a person, a country, or the world around you. How you have to stay awake, have to stay vigilant…I would like to thank all of those who keep us vigilant, like journalists in this magnificent country. In God’s Country.”
Desert sky, dream beneath the desert sky.
The rivers run but soon run dry.
We need new dreams tonight.
Desert rose, dreamed I saw a desert rose
Dress torn in ribbons and bows
Like a siren she calls (to me).
Sleep comes like a drug in God’s country
Sad eyes, crooked crosses, in God’s country
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