Under the four gleaming steeples of a sold-out Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, Irish rockers U2 offered a charismatic, cinematic set of their best known hits in an evening that doubled as a two-hour show of faith in America.
The concert was part of a tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of “The Joshua Tree” album, a product of a cynical cultural environment created by political scandal in the U.S. and Britain in the mid 1980s. While contemporary parallels abound, U2 seemed less interested in stoking anger on Sunday night, one of the few remaining U.S. concerts on the tour, than in appreciating American ideals, even if sometimes unrealized, led by justice, equality, generosity and tolerance.
Addressing a crowd dotted with Irish flags, Colombian flags, Venezuelan flags, Brazilian flags and rainbow flags, bandleader Bono interrupted a version of “Bad,” with a request. “Permit us a meditation on your country,” he said, before leading the audience in several full-throated repetitions of a refrain from “America” by Simon and Garfunkel: “All come to look for Amehhh-rica.”
It was one of many reminders during the night of the singular power of U2, among pop-music acts, to create moments of surprising intimacy that unite tens of thousands of people, singing along for most of the night, in an almost literal group hug.
While The Joshua Tree Tour includes a track-by-track performance of the album, these songs are bracketed by many of the favorites fans have come to expect. The prelude began with drummer Larry Mullen Jr. seated on a satellite stage positioned about 50 rows out in the floor seats, his signature opening beat to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” establishing the unrelenting rhythm that would define the next 120 minutes. Bono, guitar deity the Edge and bassist Adam Clayton joined Mullen on this small stage for efficiently energetic versions of “New Year’s Day,” “Bad” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
It was when “The Joshua Tree” portion kicked off that metaphors were writ large, as the band moved to the main stage, which backed onto a massive high-definition video screen four or five stories high and the width of a football field (160 feet). Fans of the Miami Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes, justifably proud of the large video boards that recently debuted in the four corners of remodeled stadium, may never look at those screens the same way again.
“Where the Streets Have No Name” opened “The Joshua Tree” section accompanied by a stunning, wide-angle black-and-white film by Anton Corbijn shot while rolling along a road through a lonely desert in the American Southwest (home of the Joshua tree). In the distance gloomy mountains rise into clouds pregnant with rain, as we pass occasional hitchhikers and free spirits along the road. If there is melancholy in the air, there also is stunning beauty.
“I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For” was performed in front of a ghostly forest of trees, many blackened by fire — scorched earth as a place of rejuvenation — while “With or Without You” was paired with magnificent scenes of sunny, shadow-creased mountains and canyons of the West.
It was like seeing America’s natural majesty for the first time, or being forced to dust off old memories of these places and appreciate them anew.
The films became more abstract for the raging “Bullet the Blue Sky” and the rarity “Red Hill Mining Town,” about out-of-work coal miners, which got a particularly sensitive reading from Bono, as did “Running to Stand Still,” about heroin addiction.
The concluding section of the show returned to some of the band’s big hits, including “Beautiful Day,” “Elevation” “Ultraviolet” and “Vertigo,” with all the required firepower, as well as the show-stopping romance of “One.”
Also among the encores was an emotional version of “Miss Sarajevo” (with recorded Luciano Pavarotti accompaniment) that began with a clip of a 15-year-old Syrian girl, Omaima, describing her love for America from a Jordanian refugee camp. The original “Miss Sarajevo” was performed by Bono in 1995 to call attention to victims of war in Yugoslavia. As U2 performed the song Sunday night a large section of fabric with Omaima’s passport photo emblazoned on it was passed, hand to hand, over the heads of the crowd.
“Give me your tired, yearning to breathe free,” Bono said to the multicultural crowd. “We believe in you, America. Omaima believes in you.”
If U2’s enthusiasm was more pronounced on some songs than on others, there were plenty of reasons to give fresh consideration to this band as being the best at what they do. Clayton and Mullen are incomparable timekeepers, and the Edge showed off all of his skills, from the fusillade of guitar that pierced “In God’s Country” and “Trip Through Your Wires,” to the bitter-sweetness he added to “Running to Stand Still” on piano.
Bono, braving the humidity in a heavy jacket, black jeans and boots, may not have hit the highest of high notes, but his voice still has ample power, on vivid display in a physically riveting turn as a black-hatted TV preacher in “Exit.” And his generous spirit never flagged, telling the crowd at one point, “These are your songs now. Let them sing you.”
One Republic opened the evening with a well-received set of old songs (“Stop and Stare,” “Apologize”) and brand new (“No Vacancy”), with bandleader Ryan Tedder, the prolific songwriter who recently went public with details of a near-breakdown, a particularly relaxed and engaging presence.