What an astonishing sight it was to witness a pack of renowned artists, performers with an already mammoth profile, dwarfed by their own work.
That occurred, in very literal fashion, Friday night as the members of U2 stood at attention on the stage of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, their silhouetted figures mere miniatures in front of the towering image representing the Irish band’s most enduring recording — a Joshua tree.
The 11 songs making up the 1987 album “The Joshua Tree” served as a centerpiece for U2’s first Kentucky concert in 16 years and its first Louisville show since 1982. Songs predating the album opened the concert, and hits covering an 18-year stretch that followed the record concluded it. But at the two-hour show’s thematic and musical core were the muscular, topically driven and still remarkably vital songs from “The Joshua Tree” that cemented U2’s megastardom three decades ago.
Was it nostalgic? To a degree. The first three songs on “The Joshua Tree” were its biggest hits — “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You.” But by the time the band got to the second half of the album (“Welcome to Side Two,” singer/frontman Bono proclaimed), the audience was faced with far less recognizable material. Within that segment, though, were some of the evening’s true gems, including a triumphant “One Tree Hill,” a brutally acidic “Exit” (the most fearsome rocker of the night) and a ghostly “Mothers of the Disappeared” performed as a prayer.
The transition of opening songs from 1983’s “War” and 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire” into the suite that made up “The Joshua Tree” was quite striking, as well. The concert began with a suitably anthemic “Sunday Bloody Sunday” played from a stage assembled in the middle of the stadium field, the kind of setup most large arena and stadium productions employ as a mid-show diversion. From there, the emancipatory “Bad” revealed the internal workings of a band accustomed to pageantry working in a refreshingly sparse and elemental setting.
As U2’s most powerful affirmation “Pride (in the Name of Love)” poured fourth, the concert used a visual element as cinematic as the band’s music with the text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech illuminated on a video screen large enough to fill the stadium’s entire end zone. Watching that bleed into the churchy keyboard hum and chiming guitars of “Where the Streets Have No Name” was quite chilling.
The encore section turned away from the inner snapshots of America dominating “The Joshua Tree” in favor of more universally human reflection. “Miss Sarajevo” was renamed “Miss Syria” and included the recorded vocal accompaniment of the late Luciano Pavarotti from the original recording with a new visual backdrop — a commissioned film shot at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. In the same vein, “Ultraviolet” sounded as affirmative and enchanted as ever but found a new topical life as a dedication to female activists. “Beautiful Day,” however, stayed put as a straightforward pop reflection of a simpler peace.
How much has age altered U2? A little. You didn’t notice it much from guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who continued to play with efficient, rhythmic and unassuming propulsion. You noticed the years slightly more with Bono. He didn’t reach into the vocal stratosphere or display the athletic bravado of past tours. But he was no elder slouch, either, rocking amicably with the looser tumble of “Trip Through Your Wires” while commanding U2’s overall activist involvement with the eternally hopeful “One.”
One of the show’s more curious but wonderfully complimentary nods to age came during “Red Hill Mining Town,” which boasted the band’s patient live recitation on half of the video screen with the recorded support of a pokerfaced Salvation Army brass band on the other.
There was another grand, but totally unexpected, special effect that distinguished the concert. Once “Where the Streets Have No Name” settled into its percolating groove, accompanied by the stunning visual of a desert road shown from a behind-the-windshield perspective, a huge jet airliner soared over the stadium, seemingly within spitting distance, on its way to a landing at nearby Louisville International Airport. Guess the skies didn’t have a name, either.
The Colorado band OneRepublic opened the evening with an inviting 50-minute set that drew on the vocal charge of Ryan Tedder and the instrumental color of bassist and cellist Brent Kutzie. The music was delivered with crisp instrumentation and ample vigor. It was also indistinguishable from the work of a dozen other acts that took their cue from the alt-pop aftermath of ’90s grunge.