Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Set Me Alight: Playing 'The Joshua Tree' and More in Chicago, U2 Provides Elevation...Repeatedly -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act The Lumineers
Soldier Field, Chicago
June 3 and 4
@@@@@ (both shows)

In a simple, straightforward sense, I loved U2's concerts at Soldier Field over the weekend because one of my favorite musical artists sounded great in playing their best album, The Joshua Tree, in full--commemorating its 30th anniversary--and several other songs I cherish.

But the Irish band also served to resplendently, transcendentally, spiritually, psychologically, therapeutically, emotionally, majestically, ebulliently, etc., reiterate why music--and very much so, their music--means so much to me, and millions or billions of others.

Though I am a Chicago area resident whose travel was merely by subway, I devoted 20 hours getting to and from the shows on Saturday and Sunday, and a not inconsiderable amount of money--and I would happily do it again.

If you're a longtime U2 fan, and especially one of the 100,000 or so who attended the sold-out Chicago gigs, you understand my affinity for the Irish quartet--the same four guys since 1976, now perhaps the longest running active band without any lineup changes, or even additional touring musicians--and how good they sounded on two picture-perfect nights.

At least a dozen friends have corroborated my belief that the shows were fantastic, and I haven't seen any offering a differing opinion.

And if you're not a fan, or long ago soured on U2--perhaps due to their run of largely middling albums over the past two decades--I'm unlikely to override your skepticism and convince you that in their late 50s, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. are still capable of delivering shows for the ages (and not, just, the aged).

Especially as across two nights at Soldier Field--with both shows being materially similar, though not exact--only the very last song played on Sunday was written any more recently than the year 2000. (This was the unreleased "The Little Things That Give You Away," which Bono said is the last song on their forthcoming album, ostensibly Songs of Experience following 2014's Songs of Innocence, scourge of iHaters everwhere.)

This is the first time U2 has launched a major tour without a new record that typically informs a good deal of the setlist, and despite the brilliance of The Joshua Tree--which I relished being explored anew, by band and audience alike--the 30th Anniversary Tour may not best convince newbies and cynics.

The album's first three songs--"Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "With or Without You"--were its biggest hits, and preceding them to begin the concerts were two big songs each from War and The Unforgettable Fire, the 1983 and 1984 albums that came before The Joshua Tree. (These were actually U2's 3rd, 4th & 5th studio albums.)

So several of the songs--including "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)"--that are tent poles throughout or near the end of most U2 concerts were knocked out within the first 45 minutes, and this front-loading somewhat disjointed the sonic, emotional and anthemic arc the band typically, and thrillingly, creates.

But though more casual fans might not well-know Joshua Tree "Side 2" songs such as "Red Hill Mining Town" and "Trip Through Your Wires," despite their lacking the anthemic grandeur of the hits, I enjoyed hearing U2 dig deep into album tracks they haven't played for decades, if ever. (Bono, who remains in fine voice, seemed overtly pleased when these tunes were pulled off with aplomb.)

And for me, the ferocious "Exit" was a clear highlight of both nights.

While some may wonder why I needed to go twice, just the fact that I got to hear "Bad" on Saturday and "A Sort of Homecoming"--a favorite of mine never before witnessed--on Sunday, made it worthwhile, along U2's oldest hit ("I Will Follow") and newest known song ("The Little Things That Give You Away") variably ending the two concerts. (See U2's Chicago setlists for June 3 and June 4 on Setlist.fm).

But while realizing the parallels are imperfect, I would also argue that the reason for me seeing U2 on consecutive nights and numerous times (20 now)--as I've done with Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Smashing Pumpkins, the late David Bowie and other favorites--is akin to why people regularly attend religious services, or participate in therapy sessions, or frequent watering holes, or see the latest Star Wars film again and again.

None of which I happen to do, while understanding and respecting the appeal and value for others.

I don't want to get too deep into this, but for me art is salvation.

The Seth Saith blog attests rather prolifically to how much I love--and enjoy sharing my passions for--theater, fine art, other art forms and my favorite sports teams.

These--and most of all, rock music, particularly live & in-person--aren't just hobbies, diversions, entertainments or pastimes.

They are what nourish me, sustain me, enlighten me, inspire me and--rather holistically--delight me.

I am not being facetious, nor wishing to be disrespectful to anyone, when I say that rock is my religion.

And also my bartender, therapist and pharmacologist.

U2's concerts this weekend epitomized this in ways I can't wordily express. To an extent few other musical acts can match.

Still reeling from the tragedy in Manchester--which beyond the terrible sorrow for those lost and injured, struck at those of us who relish live events--I learned about the terrorist attacks in London on the way to Saturday's show.

So as the show began with drummer Larry Mullen Jr. walking alone to an auxiliary stage and pounding out the iconic intro to "Sunday Bloody Sunday," with the band soon following and Bono singing, "I can't believe the news today, I can't close my eyes and make it go away," I had a lump in my throat, tears in my eyes and a sense that I was in the exact spot I needed to be.

On Sunday, before leaving for the show, I watched the Manchester One Love benefit concert, headed by the courageous Ariana Grande. Seeing the huge crowd of Mancunians, including many of the singer's young fans who were at the terror-stricken show, resiliently sing along with her and other artists, was also incredibly moving.

It reminded that life can be as bad as it can possibly be, but it can also be astonishingly--and curatively--beautiful, with music possibly the world's most galvanizing force.

Sunday night's U2 show only furthered that feeling.

So while I simply could have said here that a great band played great songs with demonstrable greatness, on not just one "Beautiful Day" but two, it wouldn't have sufficiently explained why I found these concerts so wonderful.

Feel free to be dubious. Though always a U2 fan, I've never been a purely fawning one, and have been rather critical at many a juncture.

But they long ago established themselves as one of the best bands of all-time, and among my very favorites. 

In myriad ways that go beyond what they played, in which order or how well--though there wasn't a note I didn't actively enjoy, including the aptly uplifting "Elevation"--this past weekend in Chicago they resoundingly reiterated why.


Opening both shows were The Lumineers, a folksy Denver-based band that have become arena headliners in their own right. U2 often features rather big opening acts, and the crowd was near capacity and appreciative during the Lumineers' 50-minute sets. I enjoyed them fine as an opener, but have seen bands just as good at $7 cover charge bars in Chicago. This only amplified U2's comparative magnitude and magnificence.

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