SANTA CLARA — On its own, U2 performing its 1987 breakout album, The Joshua Tree, is significant for two reasons. Foremost, it means the Irish band has accepted its position as a legacy band with a storied songbook that the casual fan prefers over new material. But the second—and to this longtime fan more fun—reason is hearing tracks off a historic album that U2 has not played in many years.
Rightfully so, U2 rolls out “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “Bullet The Blue Sky,” “With Or Without You,” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” at nearly every show. But The Joshua Tree had two other singles and a bunch of terrific songs that rarely see the light of day, being released only on special occasions: The rollicking “In God’s Country,” contemplative “One Tree Hill” and “Mothers of the Disappeared,” and the firebrand “Exit.”
And sonically, the songs came across splendidly. Visually, too. The band performed on two stages. The main stage and corresponding massive 8k video screen both stretched from one side of Levi’s Stadium to another. The videos, many of them filmed by acclaimed photographer Anton Corbijn (who photographed the album cover) were as crystal clear as an IMAX movie, sometimes even causing a bit of dizziness.
Connected to the main stage by a catwalk was a larger Joshua Tree-shaped round stage. This one was much shorter and allowed fans to get closer. The band started and ended the show on the Tree stage, and played all of The Joshua Tree songs on the main stage
The first fourth of the show consisted not of the featured material but older songs. U2 opened with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” before segueing into another song that hasn’t seen the light of day in years, 1984’s “A Sort of Homecoming.” Fan favorite “Bad” came next, and “Pride (In The Name of Love).” The impression was that these were the songs that influenced the landmark album.
This assumption was part of the show’s drawback. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. offered no interpretation, or backstories about these songs. When Bruce Springsteen toured The River, nearly each song was accompanied by the story of what inspired it. As a longtime fan, I know “Streets” was inspired by Bono’s experience helping those in need in Africa. But many fans just saw the huge light-up Joshua Tree that dominated the video screen.
Throughout the show Bono made references to the Bay Area, calling out attendee Reverend Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Church, as well as Sheryl Sandberg and others. During “Exit,” Bono donned the wide-brimmed hat he wore so often in 1987 and played the role of snake-oil salesman, tricking the masses. Before that, a short clip from 1950s TV show “Trackdown,” featuring a character named Trump who wants to build a wall, was one of several digs against the current president of the United States.
“The government should fear its citizens, not the other way around,” he said. “Nothing draws a politician more than millions of people organized.”
After concluding the older material, U2 moved on to newer tracks like “Beautiful Day” and “One,” and closed the show with a brand new track called “The Little Things That Give You Away,” off the on-the-way album called Songs of Experience, the follow-up 2014’s Songs of Innocence.
London folk-rock revivalists Mumford and Sons opened the show with a terrific 50-minute set of their own. Backed by a fiddler and sometimes a drummer, Marcus Mumford and company seemed to win many unassuming fans over from the get-go. Mumford switched between playing guitar and his original trade of drumming. The set consisted of songs off all the band’s albums, as well as a newer track called “Blind Leading The Blind.” Still, it was early hits “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” that drew the biggest cheers.
RIFF did not have a photographer at the Santa Clara show, so check out these amazing photos from the band’s May 14 show in Seattle instead.