It starts like a hymn, with a pastoral wash of keyboards that resembles the sway of a church organ. But what you soak in is more atmospheric, as it begins to rise in volume and swell with light but pronounced intensity.
Then you hear it. Riding, as if from another shore — or, in this case, the middle of a desert — is guitar chatter that already has been an earmark of U2. Once it circles and lands, the rest of the band locks in with a groove that is surprisingly elemental. Finally, there are the words: a greeting, an emancipation and, to a degree, a warning.
“I wanna run, I wanna hide, I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside.”
With that, U2 entered the pop world redefined in spring 1987. The song was “Where the Streets Have No Name,” which the Irish band has played at pretty much every concert it has given since then. The album it introduced was “The Joshua Tree,” a record that, despite its ethereal beginning, was starker, bolder and more socially aware than anything Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. had designed to that point in the band’slegendary career.
Granted, U2 was already on top of the world. Its preceding album, 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire,” completed a shedding of the band’s youthful profile that had started a year earlier on “War.” Bolstered by a massive worldwide hit, “Pride (in the Name of Love)” and seemingly endless touring that culminated in a globally televised set for the 1985 watershed benefit concert Live Aid, U2 had grown from the Irish upstart that opened the ears of the world as an early-’80s post-punk affirmation to a pack of journeymen rock stars.
“Global,” in fact, is the key descriptive term for “The Joshua Tree.” Its first single — “With or Without You” (an inward, intense and intimate confessional that explodes into an anthem) notwithstanding, the record’s reach was remarkable, from the stark black-and-white cover photography that Anton Corbijn took of the band in the desert landscape of Zabriskie Point to the war-ravaged regions of El Salvador that inspired what remains arguably the album’s finest moment and certainly one of U2’s most topically and musically volatile works, “Bullet the Blue Sky.”
Making the past present
Three decades, a Grammy for album of the year and 25 million copies in sales later, “The Joshua Tree” now becomes the renewable fuel for U2’s reputation as a juggernaut touring act.
“We didn’t know if we could pull off a tour that honors ‘The Joshua Tree’ without it being nostalgic,” Bono told Rolling Stone magazine three shows into a mammoth 2017 stadium tour marking the album’s 30th anniversary. A lot of people will wonder the same thing this summer, but it’s doubtful many will really care — especially the tens of thousands expected Friday night at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, where Bono and the band will perform “The Joshua Tree” in its entirety.
By now, U2 has entered a level of elder-star status, and its current popularity is essentially an offshoot of past glories. Sure, the band remains an active recording unit and was even in the midst of sessions for a new album when the idea for a touring celebration of its most popular and best-selling work came about. But at this point, do fans plunk down the equivalent of a car payment to see U2 play music from “No Line on the Horizon” or “Songs of Innocence,” its last two albums? For better or worse, U2 is now part of that rock contingency with a past so storied that it will forever eclipse any newer music it makes from here on out.
Not surprisingly, set lists for the current stadium tour — which, while highlighting “The Joshua Tree,” is not tied exclusively to it — features only one new tune (the unreleased “The Little Things That You Give Away”). Few, if any, selections come after its 2000 album, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,”
Infrequent visitors to Kentucky
For regional fans, Friday night’s concert will mark only the fourth time that U2 has performed in Kentucky, and it’s its first Louisville concert in more than 35 years. Its last outing there was as an opening act for a March 1982 show by the J. Geils Band at the now-dormant Louisville Gardens.
Rupp Arena scored the other two visits. The most recent was a Derby Eve show in 2001, when “Beautiful Day” ruled the airwaves. But the first, in October 1987, came during the third leg of a worldwide tour promoting the initial release of “The Joshua Tree.”
The 1987 concert environment at Rupp was very different then. That fall alone, the arena hosted Whitney Houston, David Bowie, Boston, Def Leppard, Alabama and two sold-out shows by Pink Floyd.
But U2 had a tough night there. Plagued by voice problems, Bono struggled during the first half of the performance before tossing his mic to the floor and briefly leaving the stage during “Bad.” But there were plenty of arresting moments. Along with eight of the 11 songs pulled from “The Joshua Tree” sat a pair intriguing covers: The Beatles’ “Help,” performed as a moody reflection begging that the song’s lyrics be taken literally, and “People Get Ready,” transformed from a gospel soul timepiece into a roots-savvy jamboree and featuring Lexingtonian Morgan Hodges, pulled from the audience, on guitar.
Flash-forward 30 years and we have “The Joshua Tree” thriving again in stadiums with songs worldly in scope but often fashioned to frame multiple views of America — some born in folklore and faith, others sobering and confrontational. It was a record born of the Reagan era, now revived during the Trump presidency. But it’s not a condemnation. Instead, “The Joshua Tree” is a scrapbook rumination of one country’s spirit as viewed wondrously by another’s most celebrated musical export.
“It doesn’t write scolding protest songs,” Jon Pareles wrote in a New York Times review of U2 in a review of its May 14 concert at CenturyLink Field. “It strives for empathy, hope and, ultimately, exaltation.”
Bono more succinctly summed up U2’s suspect fascination of our culture and its omnipresent place on the world stage in only three words that buoy the raging eye of “Bullet the Blue Sky.”
“Outside, it’s America.”