U2 has never super flashy — OK, maybe apart from the “Zooropa” days — and for their live shows, it’s always been more about the band being the vehicle through which the message is conveyed. The focus is the bigger picture versus the four individual band members, but set to music.
At U2’s FedEx Field show in Landover, Maryland, Tuesday evening, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of “The Joshua Tree,” the band member even smaller in comparison to enormous screens, said to be the largest video monitors ever used in a touring show. But the music remained as larger-than-life as when it first hit the airwaves in 1987.
It was this attention to “the bigger picture” that frontman Bono entreated the audience to abide during Tuesday evening’s show: The world is much bigger than yourself, but we are all one in it too. Bono and company have always brought this to the fore on their records, and they turned this axiom into a gorgeous musical piece of live art.
One way the band aimed to reach the next level of consciousness was through poetry. Pre-show, all manner of poetry scrolled down the stage screens, from Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” to Jamila Woods’ “Ghazal for White Hen Pantry.” The band walked out to “Whole of the Moon” by the seminal Scotch-Irish band The Waterboys.
The band’s own songs reflect their social consciousness by discussing “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”), Martin Luther King (“Pride”) and even the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of women whose children were forcibly disappeared by the Argentine government (“Mothers of the Disappeared”). Snippets of speeches by Presidents Kennedy and Regan discussing the beauty of America were heard prior to the start of “Beautiful Day” in the encore.
During “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” the giant screens displayed a visual roll call of many pioneering women throughout history, including the Russian band Pussy Riot, The Woman’s Island Corps, Khalida Popal, Begum Rokeya and even Michelle Obama, whose appearance received a big cheer.
“When sisters around the world are in school like their brothers, that [is] a beautiful day,” Bono said. “When women unite and rewrite history, that’s a beautiful day.”
There’s something very special and heart-filling to see an entire football stadium collectively raise their arms and pogo together, which is precisely what happened during both “Beautiful Day” and the start of “Elevation.” It was an energy that could have lit up the the entire Maryland night.
As Bono said, “That’s elevation, mama!”
For “One Tree Hill,” originally written for Greg Carroll, a roadie and friend of the band who died in 1986 at age 26 from a motorcycle accident, Bono dedicated the song to his departed friend, as well as to Michael Elliot and his widow, Emma Oxford, who was in the audience. Elliot, who died of cancer in 2016, was a former Time magazine editor who had also been the president of One, the advocacy organization Bono co-founded.
Prior to “Ultraviolet,” Bono said, “This is for the one in our life, our partners, our mothers, our daughters. My daughter, Jordan, is here tonight.”
During the first song of the encore, the revamped “Miss Sarajevo” — now “Miss Syria (Sarajevo)” — those giant LED screens played a specially commissioned film of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to roughly 80,000 Syrians forced to flee their home country. The film included a stunning interview with a young woman named Omaima, a Syrian refugee, who said, “I love America. It’s the place of dreams.”
A giant flag of Omaima’s passport photo was unfurled during the song and was passed around the stadium atop the hands of the audience like a wave.
“America, America, land of the free. We love you not just as a country, but also as an idea,” Bono decreed at the song’s end. “Greatest idea ever.”
The show ended when the band brought up to the stage a man holding a sign that inquired if he could do a headstand onstage. Always sharp with the Irish wit, Bono said, “Generally, we don’t work with other people or animals, but OK.”
U2 still sounds stellar, and “The Joshua Tree,” the reason for the 30th anniversary tour, is a record that still holds up. They’re also a band that urges its listeners to see more than the four walls around them, to heed the call of “if not you, then who?”
In the case of U2, it was a success. Said Bono at the evening’s close: “Thanks very much, you’ve given us a great life.”