My wife, as an accomplished researcher and entrepreneur, is perhaps the best planner I know. Events? Give her a date, an idea of what you want to have happen, and she’ll scour online merchants and Pinterest boards to make it happen, below budget and beyond your expectations. Mention a vacation, and she’ll find the perfect place, the best route, and the Groupon that will make you feel like you’re on vacation with the Kennedys. When U2 announced that they were adding additional dates to their Joshua Tree Anniversary tour, I was excited. The originally announced tour dates didn’t work with our life events, and I had been disappointed, as U2 has long been one of my favorite bands, and I’d never gotten to see them live (though I did see Bono play with the Corrs at Live8 in Edinburgh 2006…an obnoxious bragging point of mine). Reviews of the tour had been stellar, and we decided that an early fall trip to Indianapolis would be fun. It’d be drivable, we have friends there we could spend time with, and we like downtown Indianapolis. So, when the Monday ticket sale began, I sat at my laptop to score some seats, and Lisa went into research mode.
But then I noticed that there were tickets still available–as Ticketmaster-sanctioned resale tickets–for the Louisville show. June 16th. In 4 days. It was actually a good weekend to be away. We like Louisville a lot, too. So we checked in via Cell and decided, why not? We scored tickets. Lisa, who isn’t a huge concert-goer but loves me, someone who is, went into hyperdrive planning mode (btw, if you know Lisa, ask her sometime about what it’s like to plan a spontaneous trip vs. a long range one. Spontaneity ain’t necessarily cheap, light, and breezy). She scored us an AirBnB downtown and making other arrangements, and I checked in with my colleagues and volunteers, who assured me that they had everything under control for Sunday worship, and we, whose lives don’t really allow us much room for spontaneity, were off to the concert!
It was a real gift. I’m really glad we went. This was a huge event by Louisville standards, so there were some logistical quirks we couldn’t control (Interstate traffic heading to the concert was backed up for miles, and the venue, Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, proved to be as hot as its corporate sponsor’s pizza ovens until the Sun went down, and its vendors were as overwhelmed as the highway) and some we didn’t anticipate (Uber Surge Pricing, but our a driver, who maneuvered us through neighborhoods leading to the stadium so we weren’t stuck on the highway, lessened the sting of the pricing a little.), but it was a concert worth waiting all of these years to see. There was so much going on–artistically, production-wise, socio-politically, and theologically–that I couldn’t turn my brain off, so I’ve organized a few of my chaotic thoughts into a few categories:
The Concert Itself
Because this tour celebrates the 30th Anniversary of the release of The Joshua Tree, the album that really marked the transformation of U2 from beloved band to superstars, I was aware that the game plan for the concert was a track-by-track performance of the songs on that album.
That is a rare event for any concert, whether it’s a relatively new act, who might want to profile a few new songs they’re hoping to promote, or a beloved rock and roll legend who inevitably has a few misses bogging down each album’s hits. The Joshua Tree is an incredible piece of art, so to hear it played from start to finish live was powerful (Bono even quipped before “Red Hill Mining Town” that it was time to “play the B-side”.) and there were plenty of visuals that accented the songs, whether in their beauty (a rolling film of desert highway and sojourners looped during “Where the Streets Have No Name”) or in their razor sharp commentary (The raging guitar of “Bullet The Blue Sky,” which was originally written as a critique of the United States’ military in Nicaragua and El Salvador, was accompanied by pictures of “Everypeople” donning combat gear, bringing the complications and problems of a globally militerized culture in the age of terrorism into focus).
I was pleasantly surprised, however, that the track-by-track journey through the album was framed by two other “acts,”–beforehand, a quick highlight of pre-Joshua Tree songs that began with War’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and included “New Year’s Day,” as well as The Unforgettable Fire’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Bad” (one of my very favorites), and then, after, a performance of two deep tracks: “Miss Sarajevo,” written for a documentary about a beauty pageant held during the Bosnian War, and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” from Achtung Baby. Both tunes were re-contextualized for this tour, with “Miss Sarajevo” sung against a backdrop of video highlighting the Syrian refugee crisis, and “Ultraviolet” dedicated to women as a global force for transformative justice, with a montage of suffragists, activists, artists, and icons flashing behind the band. They then launched into some of the most recognizable post-Joshua Tree tunes, including “One,” “Beautiful Day,” “Elevation,” and “Vertigo”–Rocking harder with each tune.
(I did silently note that there was nothing from the oft-maligned Pop and Zooropa albums and certainly nothing from the marketing disaster that was Songs of Innocence. Though I personally like No Line on the Horizon, it isn’t as widely beloved as other albums, and certainly doesn’t include the same number of memorable singles as the albums from which they hand-selected the set. ) It made for a mesmerizing performance–and it included something for every fan. I couldn’t have asked for a better show.
A Liturgy of Justice
My friend and colleague Jonathan saw U2 play a week before I did. In conversation earlier this week, he noted that Bono “took [the audience] to church” with the depth of performance and his always-ready commentary. The sheer theatricality of the concert, its well-finessed segues and perfectly coordinated visual imagary, and even the three “acts” showcasing the phases of the band’s career did offer the sort of storytelling structure that religious liturgy offers, and like liturgy done well, casts a powerful, persuasive vision of the world and what the world could be.
It was striking that the set would begin with “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a song written about the 20th Century violence between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at a time of deep political division and conflict in the United States. Bono, ever the improviser, even played around with the final verse, switching two key words to drive home a critique of American Culture, our cult of celebrity, and the blurring of lines that has created our hunger for infotainment (his revision is marked in red below):
And it’s true we are immune
When fact is fiction and reality TV
And today the millions cry
We eat and drink while tomorrow they die
The final haunting line of the song, meant to call out the painful absurdity of a conflict divided along Protestant and Catholic lines, also rang in my ears, reminding me of the liminal, transitional time in the role of the Church and American culture, be it from the perspective of the troubled Mainline or the troubling Religious Right:
And the battle has just begun
To claim the victory Jesus won
As Bono’s commentary between songs emphasized these Irish rocker’s love for the United States, he doubled down on Bloody Sunday’s clarion call, imploring the audience to not look to the political right or left, but to work and look toward something higher.
The run through The Joshua Tree, which I’ve always heard as a critical love letter through America like a mashup of Kerouac’s On the Road and The New Testament dropped in Reagan’s White House Inbox, proved as relevent a confession and sermon as ever. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” served as a skeptical pilgrim’s gospel song, “Red Hill Mining Town,” and “Running to Stand Still” echoed the same stories of lives lived in quiet desperation that they did 30 years ago, and “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “Mothers of The Disappeared” served as powerful altar calls to an American Superpower longing to re-make its image of greatness in an isolationist model. Though the days of the Domino Effect and funding the Contras may be long over, the voices of migrants and disappeared dissidents are not. What, the album still asks, are we prepared to do? Who are we prepared to be and become?
Emotive but never cloying, passionate and yes, preachy, but not without the authority of having been invested in the work, Bono framed the band’s body of work around the critical issues that still make their voice relevant, never losing the trajectory of their catalog brought to life for a night. From the opioid crisis that has rocked Kentucky to gun violence (Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly were there as guests) to HIV/AIDS and the work of the ONE foundation, I was reminded that I wouldn’t do the work that I do now in the way I do it now had I not picked up The Joshua Tree and War in middle school, flipped through the liner notes, learning for the first time about Amnesty International, the Disappeared in Argentina, or South African Apartheid. U2 was a critical part of my moral education.
Hearing the Prophetic Voice
–Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
I’m hardly the first person to think about U2 through a theological lens. Most recently, however, I’ve found the work of Walter Brueggemann and U2 to be perfect conversation partners, and my post-seminary readings of Brueggemann have been as instructive to me as U2 was to my impressionable middle school heart and mind. U2’s vision and Brueggemann’s work point to the intertwining of two impulses: to create something beautiful and transformative and to work for a more just world. Both require imagination that envision a world–an “Other Place”–that turns a world ruled by powers and principalities on its head:
It’s a beautiful day
Take me to that other place
I know I’m not a hopeless case
Like Brueggemann’s prophet, U2 casts the transformative vision with familiar metaphors, shifting a bird’s eye view of the planet earth to an even wider view that catches glimpses of hope, transformation, and the reconciliation of all things:
See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the Bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors came out
What makes a socially-conscious set of artists like U2 so engaging and inspiring is that their work is precisely what Brueggemann describes as the vocation of ministry to which I am called: a call to co-imagine with their fans this better world and then work with the very powerful people they challenge for policies that bring this hope-filled glimpse to life. It’s critique with compassion, always driven by a hope that what while we’re looking for is yet to be found, it will be–and it will mean that there is enough–food, health, and justice–for all. And on Friday night, I was reminded that this is a call that I will hear long after the echo of the concert stops ringing in my ears.
all photos and videos by Lisa Hale