U2 made a Pittsburgh stop on The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 Wednesday night before a near sold out crowd at Heinz Field. The band is celebrating the 30th anniversary of their landmark album The Joshua Tree. The album sold more than 20 million copies (the most of any U2 album) and at the 1987 Grammy Awards won U2 Album Of The Year and Best Rock Performance. This is the first time that U2 has toured on the full performance of an album from their back catalog, which has become a more common occurrence for some other bands. The group felt that the material of The Joshua Tree had come full circle. That the album, which was a response to the mid-1980s world leaders and state of humanity, was occurring again.
The performance set-up for U2 was pretty simple. There was a main stage that almost ran sideline to sideline at the open Pittsburgh end of Heinz Field. The backdrop was a huge video screen that ran from one side of the stage to the other and had to be over 100 feet tall. There was a slight rounded indentation in the middle of the screen, behind the drum kit riser. A walkway extended to the far right and left of the stage for Bono to get closer to the audience on the sides. There was also a walkway that ran off the right front side of the stage to a smaller stage-in-the round at about the 40 yard line (Downtown side of the field).
During the break between opening act, The Lumineers, and U2, poems scrolled on the left and right side of the video screen including one from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. A partial rainbow then formed from some rain clouds off of the Point State Park edge of Heinz Field, promising that it would be a night to remember. The multi-generational crowd, who tailgated and packed North Shore restaurants and bars for hours beforehand, filled up all the seats and waited for the main event.
The powder was primed, and U2 drummer/percussionist Larry Mullen Jr. strode toward the second drum kit on the small stage, as people applauded, to light the fuse. Mullen started a rapid melodic beat on the drums. Then The Edge walked down the walkway while he launched into a killer guitar riff. It was quickly becoming apparent that the opener would be “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Bono, singing, and Adam Clayton, power jamming his bass, joined in the fray. They then all took off on the opening grooves to the new-wave sounding “New Year’s Day” with Bono calling for everyone to raise their arms up into the air. Fog poured out of the back of the main stage, while The Edge took off on a sizzlin’ lead guitar run. Both songs were from 1983’s War.
For the next song they reached back again with “Bad” from 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. Nothing had played yet on the big video screen, which gave the small stage the feel of a stripped-down club appearance, albeit with some 65,000 people in the club. Audience members on the fields’ floor had the best sense of intimacy as they surrounded the small stage.
In what was like an encore for the first set, the band launched into “Pride (In the Name of Love).” It opened with The Edge’s electrifying high note, guitar riffs accompanied by Mullen’s pounding drum beats with occasional extra accent strikes, and machine gun fills. Clayton provided a slightly funky rock bottom, and Bono took the song to another level with his powerful vocals. The words to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech appeared on the video screen. Bono remarked “the dream is still alive in Pittsburgh—to protest, and give refuge.” The crowd loudly applauded the song and the comments.
The Joshua Tree
The group returned to the big stage. The video screen now came into full effect with what had to be the biggest image of a Joshua tree ever, set against a neon red background. It was a cool and very intense sight. U2 kicked off the first track of The Joshua Tree set with “Where the Streets Have No Name.” During the set Bono, climbed up on a box behind Mullen Jr. on the drum riser and was singing to him. The image on the big screen was of a desert highway.
Following the tracks of the album, Edge’s rapid guitar picking, concentrating on playing the individual notes of a few chords thus making it sound more fluid (an arpeggio), signaled the beginning of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Bono called out “take me to church” right before he launched into the lyrics “I believe in the Kingdom Come, then all the colors will bleed into one.” For “With or Without You,” red desert mountains were on the video screen. As The Edge went on another power run, Mullen and Clayton provided a solid bottom, and Bono sang “You give yourself away.” He encouraged the crowd to sing the chorus which they did with the spotlights on the audience.
U2 then ran through the angry, distorted song “Bullet the Blue Sky,” followed by “Running to Stand Still.” Bono broke out the harmonica for the first time in the concert and played a nice part in the song. “Red Hill Mining Town is about a British coal miners strike that created a lot of discord. The song had not been played in concert until this current tour. The band continued deeper into The Joshua Tree track list with “In God’s Country,” “Trip Through Your Wires,” and “One Tree Hill.” “Exit” was a strong rocker. For “Mothers of the Disappeared” it showed women holding candles on the video screen representing children who had disappeared under the dictatorships of Chile and Argentina in the 1980’s. The song ended the main set and The Joshua Tree’s last track. Bono said “Thank you. You have given us a great night.” He and the band exited the stage. The crowd applauded and cheered.
An ‘Elevated’ Encore
After a few minutes U2 retook the stage for their encore set. The video screen showed a foreign woman dressed simply, in a war-torn country. She spoke and her words were on the screen. This was the prelude for “Miss Sarajevo.” Bono sang the questions “Is there a time to run for cover?,” “Is there a time to Love thy neighbor?” While the band was playing the song, a large banner with a photo of woman on it that looked like the same woman who had been on the screen was passed from one side of the stadium to the other. The audience helped pass it over them and all the way around the stadium. It passed over where I was sitting and was a fun way to be involved with the show and an interesting visual element.
Bono dedicated “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” to “the great women in our lives,” naming several of them, and then continuing, “to the women in the audience…women in foreign lands we will never know. Women who persisted and resisted.” Women who did just that appeared on the video screen throughout the song including Sojourner Truth, Rachel Carson, Angela Davis, Rosa Parks, Ellen DeGeneres, and Malala Yousafzai, to name a few.
Next Bono walked to the small stage and talked about his One Campaign which takes action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, especially in Africa. Clayton walked out onto the stage to join Bono, while Mullen and The Edge remained on the mainstage. They all played “One” which like many of U2’s songs have insightful lyrics. The Edge provided a slow simmer on his guitar then hit a few crescendos. He played a variety of guitars throughout the evening including Stratocasters and a few different Gibsons.
U2 moved to hits from 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind,“Beautiful Day” and “Elevation” for the next two songs of the encore. For “Beautiful Day” the Joshua tree image was now in multi-color brilliance with Bono saying “It’s a beautiful night in Pittsburgh!” “Elevation” was a wicked jam and provided a cool shot for the video screen with a camera situated directly behind Larry Mullen showing him frenetically playing the drums with the crowd in front of the stage going wild.
The band did play one new song. It was the last one of the show, “The Little Things That Give You Away.” It started out softly with the band playing on the smaller stage and The Edge playing a lovely piece on the keyboards. The song moved uptempo near the end and The Edge switched from keys to electric guitar. U2 waved as they left the stage, the crowd clapping and yelling in hopes there would be more. The concert was over, clocking in at two hours.
Anytime U2 visits Pittsburgh, with Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton, all great musicians, but even better together as U2, it truly is a beautiful day! They are one of the best rock bands of the last thirty years.
Americana-tinged folk rockers, The Lumineers, opened the show and played a fun 12-song set of their hits including “Ho Hey,” “Cleopatra,” and “Stubborn Love.” Lead vocalist Wesley Keith Schultz thanked the crowd for the opportunity to perform for them, and in support of the headliner. The crowd gave sustained applause as they concluded their performance.
Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and enjoys good rock concerts.