by John Ellis
Like all good Gen-Xers who grew up in conservative Christianity, U2 is most often the answer to the question of who my favorite band is. To this day, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby are two of my favorite albums; on most days, both are in my top-five of all time, if not top-three. The rest of the Irish band’s canon is also an indispensable part of my music library. I even regularly enjoy Zooropa and Pop, not to mention their flawed-yet-containing-seeds-of-brilliance earlier albums Boy, October, War, and The Unforgettable Fire. I own and, at least on occasion, listen to every studio album (including the ostensibly live album Rattle and Hum). In fact, my fandom of U2 extends all the way to owning a copy of Original Soundtracks 1, their 1995 album recorded under the pseudonym Passengers in collaboration with Brian Eno. Whether U2 is my favorite band or not, it is undeniable that I love the band and their music.
If any band captures the already-not-yet eschatology of Christianity, it’s U2. I don’t believe that’s intentional, even though the band was widely considered a Christian band during their early years. Instead, it’s a reflection of not only the transcendent nature of art but also of the band members’ unflinchingly honest and optimistic desire to steer themselves and their audience into human flourishing while acknowledging that something is broken. In the hands of lesser artists, their earnestness would appear naïve. For U2, especially their iconic frontman Bono, belief and desire are not at odds with reality; belief and desire reflect the same hope that all of creation is groaning for. Whether stated or not, while lifting their gaze above the rot and ruin, U2 calls us to also turn our gaze upon our Creator and His Kingdom.
This is why it brings me no pleasure in revealing that U2’s 2017 tour commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of The Joshua Tree tops the chart of my worst concert experiences.
It remains a mystery even to me why 2017 was the first time I saw U2 live. I mean, I’d had previous opportunities, and concert-going was a large part of my life for many years. Granted, the ticket price for a U2 show is on the upper end of ticket prices. But high-ticket prices hadn’t stopped me from seeing other bands. Prior to 2017, the closest I had come to seeing Bono and company live was the Elevation Tour’s stop in Charlotte, NC in 2001. Living in Greenville, SC, at the time, I was eager and willing to go. My ex, however, wasn’t interested, which I found unfair, having gone to a Bon Jovi concert with her a year earlier. So, when U2 announced their 2017 tour, I mentally circled their June 20th stop at FedEx Field, the home stadium for Washington D.C.’s NFL team.
By 2017, though, my wife and I had pretty much exited our concert going stage. For years, one of our main date night activities was going to a concert. But age (at least for me) had set in, and standing for hours on end in the pit, where I always wanted to be, no longer appealed to me and my aching knees and back. So, while the thought of seeing U2 initially sounded appealing, I didn’t follow through. My wife had other plans and surprised me on June 19 with tickets. Using her contacts through work, she managed to get free tickets from one of the concert’s promoters.
I was super-excited. Not only would I finally get to see U2 live, they were playing The Joshua Tree from beginning to end! I spent almost the entire day listening to the album over and over, happily turning the record upon the needle’s completion of each side. As great as it was hearing through my living room speakers “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You,” and the remaining eight tracks, that are just as good if not better than the album’s singles, I knew that I would be blown away that evening by hearing those songs live. I was wrong.
Sure, we had to take the calculated (and correct) risk to hop out of our Uber and walk the remaining mile to the stadium instead of sitting in stand-still traffic; not to mention the nearly $150 we spent on Uber rides that evening. Yes, FedEx Field is a terrible, carnivorous venue with poor sightlines, including the fact that it only has one entrance off the highway, creating the huge bottleneck that precipitated our early exit from the Uber. Of course, it’s super-annoying that most NFL stadiums, including FedEx Field, have an exclusive contract with Anheuser-Busch InBev, meaning that the only beer available is the swill bearing the Budweiser label. Granted, our seats were farther away from the stage than I would’ve preferred, and that soulless concrete cave of a stadium doesn’t help with acoustics. But, while contributing to the overall experience, those are not the main reasons why that concert is the worst concert experience I’ve had.
U2 opened the set that evening with four-pre The Joshua Tree songs: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Years Day,” “Bad,” and “Pride.” Following the “meat” of the evening, the in-order track listing from The Joshua Tree, the band played a six song encore, including “One,” “Beautiful Day,” and “Miss Sarajevo” (off the Passengers’ album). The additional non-The Joshua Tree songs were, for the most part, excellent additions. I can think of a host of other U2 songs that I would’ve preferred over “Elevation” during the encore, but, ultimately, that song’s inclusion was perfectly fine. For the entire set, Bono’s famed energy and earnestness were palpable throughout the stadium. And the band played marvelously, as to be expected from such a seasoned group of musicians who are considered among the best at their craft.
So, if the set list was great, and it was, and if the band’s performance was masterful, and it was, what was the problem? Why did I leave the stadium disappointed?
My fellow concertgoers. That’s why.
The vast majority of people sitting in our section were around my age or a little older. Think late-30s through early 50s. Which makes sense considering that the band became a cultural phenomenon during the 80s, not to mention the price of the tickets. Average college students aren’t shelling out that much money to go see their parents’ favorite band. The demographics met my expectations; their actions, however, did not.
During the four songs leading into The Joshua Tree, the crowd was still getting settled. While annoying, whatever; that’s generally par for the course at concerts. As they settled in, though, their ears collectively perked up at the strains of the familiar mid-80s radio staples. By “Pride,” the crowd was engaged and singing along. Once The Edge’s beloved opening arrangement for “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the opening track of the album, hit the crowd, we were all on our feet.
Hearing live, for the first time, such a sonically gorgeous song that also happens to be one of my all-time favorite songs was an incredible experience. An emotional experience, in fact.
A big part of the allure of the concert experience is the communal aspect. Sharing musical moments with other image bearers touches parts of our humanity that few other things can replicate. We were not made to live in isolation. Nor were we made to walk through life as disenchanted individuals. Art is where transcendence and immanence often meet, revealing, at least in part, the way we were intended to live.
So, sharing that moment with others, a moment I had longed for ever since I was first blown away by the song decades earlier, it was communal in a way that gave me a glimpse into our shared humanity. We were never intended to be at odds with each other. We are made for something better, just not that night.
As the three, chart-topping singles that open The Joshua Tree transitioned into the rest of the album, the mood shifted. Granted, track four, “Bullet the Blue Sky,” still saw a large percentage of the crowd engaged, but, from there on out, I was surrounded by a sea of private conversations loudly yelled over the music, people watching Netflix on their phone, and a whole host of other activities that didn’t include enjoying the music.
As much as I love the three singles and as excited as I was to finally hear them performed live, I was more excited to hear the remainder of the album. Look, I’m not saying that “Trip Through Your Wires” is a better song than “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” but it’s a great song, nonetheless. As are the other tracks. I knew that hearing the singles live would give me chills. I knew that “Bullet the Blue Sky” would top the recorded version (Rattle and Hum’s version is far superior to the one on The Joshua Tree, for the record). It was the other songs that I was most excited to discover their power live. I didn’t know what to expect while hearing “Mothers of the Disappeared” live for the first time. And the audience stole much of the songs’ power from me.
It was hard to hear “Running to Stand Still” over the group of increasingly drunk middle-aged women sitting in front of us. The tragically beautiful “One Tree Hill’s” solemnity was shattered by the raucous laughter coming from the group of couples across the aisle from us who were busy in their own world separate from the concert. The rest of U2’s live performance of The Joshua Tree was overshadowed by an uninterested crowd. They had heard the hits. From there on out, all they seemingly cared about was downing as many over-priced Bud Lights as they could while seeing who could talk the loudest over the music.
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why they were intentionally depriving themselves (and me) of the experience that would come from being engaged with U2’s live performance of one of the greatest rock albums of all time. Not to mention, why pay so much money for tickets and then only listen to part of the concert?
When the encores started, the crowd came back. You know, once U2 began playing radio hits again. For me, though, as hard as I fought to stay connected, by then, my frustration at the sea of unnecessary distractions around me had taken me out of the concert. Hearing “One” live was great, I guess, but far less great than it should have been.
On the way home, I thought about the detritus effects that come from the commodification of art. Most of the crowd at FedEx Field the night of June 20, 2017, at least those around me, were there to relive individual moments from their past. Instead of being engaged in the moment, they were looking for tracks from the soundtrack of their youth. As much as I love art, and as powerful I believe art can be, that evening was a reminder that even the best of art is impotent in the face of hungry individualism. So, while the art was great that evening, it was set against the ancient backdrop of the rebellious promise that I can be like God by serving myself.