Before U2 got around to playing their 30-year-old album The Joshua Tree on Sunday night beneath a starless sky at Lincoln Financial Field in South Philadelphia, the Irish rock band fired up the 50,000-strong fervent fans in attendance with four songs even older than that.
As another Irish band’s song — “The Whole of the Moon,” by the Waterboys — pumped through the crowd, dressed-in-black U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. strode to his kit on an auxiliary stage that extended well into the crowd and beat out the martial intro to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” from the 1983 album War.
One by one, Mullen was joined by his bandmates — guitarist the Edge, bass player Adam Clayton, and, of course, lead vocalist and rock-and-roll evangelist Bono, now as always insisting that in a world torn by strife, music can be — will be — a unifying force. “How long must we sing this song?” he sang, while insisting “Tonight, we will be as one.”
Three other non-Joshua Tree songs followed: “New Year’s Day,” “Bad,” — before which Bono spoke of twin scourges plaguing American cities (heroin and nationalism) — and the hortatory Martin Luther King Jr. tribute “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
With that, we were into the The Joshua Tree, the obsessed-with-America album that turned U2 into a stadium-filling attraction all over the world. Text from the Declaration of Independence (“the liner notes of America,” according to Bono) and King’s “I Have a Dream ” speech were shown on the a, and the singer spoke of “the America we fell in love with 30 years ago” as “a place of community and compassion, tolerance and protest.”
Playing The Joshua Tree live afforded U2 the opportunity to extol those virtues, and to command a huge audience. The band’s winning streak as a massively popular musical force has hit some speed bumps lately, most notably with the mixed reception received by their 2014 album Songs of Innocence, which was given to iTunes users free.
But the promise of delivering the vast, sturdy, unabashedly ambitious songs from the band’s most archetypal and heroic (or self-important, depending on your point of view) album means that all is forgiven, and all U2 fans are welcome home.
And at the Linc on Sunday, those songs — starting with the mighty trio of “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You” — sounded every bit as majestic as intended, from the Edge’s swirling, jabbing guitar to Bono’s soaring vocals.
Pulling back to the mainstage, the quartet played in front of a massive video screen that displayed a wide-open tableau of the vast expanses the band uses as visual metaphors for the endless possibilities of the American dream.
The dark side of that was also explored, in blistering tracks such as “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Exit,” a jagged guitar jam that plays as the weakest song on the album but that, prefaced with black-and-white clips from old westerns edited to poke fun at President Trump, came to life on Sunday thanks to the Edge’s five-alarm attack.
Other performances of note: a robust “Red Hill Mining Town,” never performed live before this tour, but justly rescued by the album-in-its-entirety format. “One Tree Hill,” an infrequently heard side-two gem, which was dedicated to Dennis Sheehan, the band’s road manager from Philadelphia, who died in 2015.
In the end, the best thing about U2 doing the The Joshua Tree is that it reconvenes the mass audience of now mostly middle-aged fans from which the band draws strength in the stadium performances for which their far-reaching music is best suited. As Bono put it, justifiably proud of himself: “Here we still are, and here you still are.”
Post-Joshua Tree encore highlights included a “Mysterious Ways” that honored female achievers on the video screen from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Patti Smith to Malala Yousafzai. “Womankind, explain my mind,” Bono implored.
In his intro to the band’s most irresistible musical call for unity, “One,” Bono praised former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s work to fight HIV/AIDS and expressed dismay that Trump’s proposed budget cuts could undo it. And, for a finale, the band left out “The Little Things That Give You Away,” the one brand-new song that they have frequently been closing shows with, and instead opted for one last jolt of galvanic energy with their most recent big hit, 2004’s “Vertigo.”
Denver pop-folk trio the Lumineers (expanded to a sextet with three additional musicians) opened with an agreeable breezy 50 minutes, providing a strummy sound track as fans filled the seats. Singer Wesley Keith Schultz worked hard to engage the crowd in acoustic singalongs such as “The Big Parade” (with an altered lyric meant to zing Trump), and in the end asking politely for the crowd to stand for the closing “Stubborn Love.”