Last night was my first U2 concert. Houston, Texas. And now I know, attending a U2 event is so much more than a concert. It was a journey! A collective experience, with the tens of thousands more fans who were present with me inside the stadium.
Ever since I migrated to America, I have tried to gain a better understanding of her societal and cultural mosaic. To calibrate myself. I’ve tried diving into works of American literature and art that can help me understand who she really is. To look for images I can use to stitch my map together and gain a better sense of my place in it.
As a long-time U2 fan, I picked up The Joshua Tree again shortly after moving to Texas with the intent of giving it a fresh ear. In the past couple of years, it has become my go-to work of music for understanding America, partly because of my familiarity with U2’s journey and their reason for crafting it. It is a standing expression of four curious Irishmen’s understanding of America, exploring the roots of their music and giving it new ground to stand on.
However, I always found myself short of grasping the work’s full meaning. A step short of a surer footing. Even more so amidst the uncertainty and the conflicting voices of America over the past year. Perhaps that’s the reason I’ve been listening to it again and again. I try to find hope. Some understanding. But then get lost again.
Last night changed all that in so many ways. So much of that music navigates the wide-open spaces of the American landscape, expressed through sound, lingering for a few moments in small towns of verse, taking in their troubles; and sometimes blasting through larger cities of chorus and song. To get lost in the melodic soundscapes of “Where the Streets Have No Name, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “With or Without You” is like going on a euphoric road trip without a destination, just taking in everything. You don’t really want it to end, and yet it still does. It was all brought to life last night in the stellar production backdrop. Easy to visualize. U2 gave us a walk through the America they saw when they wrote and composed The Joshua Tree. Clearly expressed what America means to a pilgrim walking through her varied geography and psychography, trying to understand who she is.
Last night was a love letter to America. A letter full of hope and belief in her better self. U2 did not merely sing, did not merely perform. They became a conduit that channeled energy in endless waves, staging meaning through sound, rallying and uniting the crowd. The music appealed to the audience’s better nature – of mercy, love, togetherness and inclusion, of acknowledging and looking past our common paranoia and injustices. It was a joy to watch the audience embrace the message in the music through repeated choruses and chants.
The band took the opportunity to highlight The Joshua Tree in a greater contextual light, with some of their other songs on tour. One Tree Hill was dedicated to the victims of Manchester – “There is no end to grief, that’s why we know there’s no end to love. I’ll see you again when the stars fall from the sky.” Heartfelt imagery of a Syrian refugee camp with a young girl’s message played to Miss Syria (Miss Sarajevo) – “Is there a time for common decency? A time to say amen. A time to love our neighbor, whether enemy or friend”. A huge banner with the girl’s image was passed along from one end of the stadium to the other, as Bono followed with a passionate recitation of Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus. The energy reached a crescendo. Favorites “One” – in hopes of a united America, “Ultraviolet” – dedicated to all women, and “Pride” – for MLK, also made charged appearances.
The whole evening really played America up to her strengths, waking her up to what she means to her people and to the world, highlighting her paradoxes, and reminding her of her legacy. To choose love over hate. Challenging her to stand up to her best, and to question her worst. There was a moment during “Beautiful Day” when Bono imagined out loud – “it’s a beautiful day when human rights drive out human wrongs. When sisters around the world are in school with their brothers, that’s a beautiful day. It’s a beautiful day when everyone’s home where they want to be.” And we imagined, and hoped away.
The Joshua Tree, and by extension this tour, is a work of art, a sincere reflective gaze into the heart and soul of America that reverberates in waves to all she represents. I slowly came to terms with my lack of understanding of the album while listening to it on my own. I was always running circles in my own flawed, psyche. Where the streets ended in a question mark. A dead end. But it was a joy to chant away all evening in a collective, unanimous cry of togetherness. And it was then that I sensed my uncertainty melt away, that I finally reached a better understanding of America. Last night in Houston, U2 showed us all a place, high on a desert plain, where the streets have no name.
A big thanks to all of you – Larry, Adam, Bono and the Edge. To many more songs, performances, and beautiful days for all. To U2.