Outside It’s America—U2 At Lucas Oil Stadium

Touring the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree album, the band made a stop in Indianapolis for the first time in more than a decade.

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First things first: It is futile to resist the first 45 minutes of the tour marking the 30th anniversary of U2’s The Joshua Tree, a nine-song block of monolithic power so expansive and relentless that it’s profoundly insane to put it at the beginning of a concert. This is a show that schedules “Pride (In the Name of Love)” fourth, because the rest of the set is frankly already too crowded.

U2 performs at Lucas Oil Stadium

On Sunday night at a packed Lucas Oil Stadium—with the roof wide open, because outside it’s America—U2 mobilized the assembled force of its history to deliver two hours of sturdy argument for the best show of the year. The first half nearly did it alone: Unfolding more or less chronologically, it fires to life with the militant bangs that open “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and going through “New Year’s Day,” the glistening “Bad” and the flight-worthy “Pride (In the Name of Love)” before the stars-coming-out riff of “Where the Streets Have No Name” directs things to the task at hand, which, you’ll remember, is the start of an album that then serves up “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You,” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” It’s a good 45 minutes before you really have a chance to mull another drink.

This may all sound like a slam-dunk proposition, but it’s really not. As a stadium show in 2017, U2’s appearance — its first here since 2001 — brought a decent amount of potential troubles: the ticket prices (no Garth Brooks–style price breaks this night, sorry), the stadium setting (which was sold out, but meant an awful lot of just-watch-the-screen seats), the militarized deployment of Bono’s lofty sermons (including regular pleas to better angels that, not surprisingly, sounded like a former president) and the idea that such full-album shows—especially this album show—could be interpreted as a straight nostalgia gig. Viewed from a certain angle, it’s not a bad time to revisit an album about the strained-but-unflinching potential of the American ideal—particularly when your last few albums have faced diminished returns.

U2 performs in front of a massive video board Sunday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium

Tony Valainis

Yet all this promptly crumbles when put up against the sheer force of The Joshua Tree, an album—and an attendant ideal—based in the notion that the country is damaged and scorched and worthy of the work needed to repair it. (The most stirring Bono-sermon of the night came on the backs of Texans—and today Floridians—ignoring boundaries to begin clearing out wreckage.) And it works not just because the world is still on fire, but because the songs are carved from ageless stone: “Trip Through Your Wires” and its harmonica-powered stomp, “In God’s Country” and its sprawling-sky shimmer, and “Exit,” a surprising highlight delivered in Bono’s full Shadow Man character (and hat). For “Mothers of the Disappeared,” the band performed in front of an ash-gray image of children and candles, projected onto an enormous science-fiction-worthy screen that stretched from sideline to sideline (and broadcast the record’s dusty, desert-road images in startling clarity—apparently I did come all the way out there to watch TV).

Bono being Bono, politics rang heavy and true, though it seemed that he might have pulled a punch or two in the dark-crimson state responsible for furnishing the vice president. DACA got first attention, with Bono claiming the Irish as the original “Dreamers,” urging unity and reminding that the changing face of labor isn’t just a matter for one color of collar to consider. The only Trump name-check came in a weird ‘50s-style sci-fi short about wall-building. Most movingly, the under-appreciated Achtung Baby highlight “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” unfolded before a stunning visual roster of history’s most influential women, a list that spanned Sojourner Truth to Rachel Carson to Heather Heyer to Hillary Clinton, who earned a rousing roar from the crowd, while including local heroes Mari Evans and Madam C.J. Walker. More local love was given to the crowd when Bono mentioned Bobby Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis on the night of MLK’s assassination, as well as a quick stock not to Kurt Vonnegut.

U2 at Lucas Oil Stadium

Tony Valainis

But if The Joshua Tree grounded the show’s statement of purpose, the balance of the setlist was stadium fire like “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation” — though, pretty tellingly, only one song younger than 2004’s “Vertigo.” That was the new single “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” the show’s sole cold moment, despite the song’s perfectly jangly hook. (And nothing from the album they installed on your phones, which they’re seemingly as anxious to forget as much as you are.) Also, 10 points for including shouts to the band’s performance opening for themselves as the costumed country/western The Dalton Brothers at the RCA Dome on the original Joshua tour in 1987; Bono found someone down in front who claimed to be in attendance and jokingly asked if she was changed by the experience. “Some of you were there,” he smirked, “some of you wished you weren’t. But we looked great.” (Also, nice work to whoever kept furnishing the singer with water bottles down near the B stage.)

It’s a lot to get through, and a lot going on, but in the end, it was all just backdrop to ideals that U2 has been preaching for three decades, tales of faith and unity and resolve so persistent as to be almost weaponized. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” found the crowd bathed in red light; “One,” the evening’s closer, painted them in blue, the damaged promise of America looming large, measured at all turns with the drive to keep fighting. “We need America to succeed, to thrive,” Bono intoned near the end of the night, having found a way to marry nostalgia with purpose unlike pretty much anything else you’ll see on a stadium scale. Power, comfort, and unity — what more do you need from a rock show?

Setlist
“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
“New Year’s Day”
“Bad”
“Pride (in the Name of Love)”
“Where the Streets Have No Name”
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
“With or Without You”
“Bullet the Blue Sky”
“Running to Stand Still”
“Red Hill Mining Town”
“In God’s Country”
“Trip Through Your Wires”
“One Tree Hill”
“Exit”
“Mothers of the Disappeared”
“Beautiful Day”
“Elevation”
“Vertigo”
“You’re the Best Thing About Me”*
“Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
“One”

*Tour debut

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