It is hard to imagine a time when U2 was not a rock and roll monolith; even harder to recall the last time the band performed their music without the giant screens and props that have for decades turned its concerts into extroverted performance pieces.
The 2019 Joshua Tree tour – the third time U2 has toured the American-inspired 1987 album but the first in Australia – seems to present a romanticised version of the band’s various reinventions. The first four songs at the Brisbane opening night of the Australian leg are early-career standards, performed on a small secondary stage with room for just four musicians and a smoke machine.
This is U2 stripped of the sort of pomp that has, in their most overblown moments, managed to relegate the music to the role of circus soundtrack. There is nowhere to look but the stage. Bono even has to resort to analogue stagecraft, looking and pointing to the front row more often than the twinkling lights at the back, engaging directly with punters in a way they likely haven’t since the band’s first decade.
Without the distraction of a spectacle, the music shines. Who knew stadium rock didn’t need constant reinvention? The key ingredients seem to be a bass drum set to the level of a Napoleonic cannon and familiar galloping tunes the crowd can screech into the Suncorp Stadium void.
On Sunday Bloody Sunday, the Edge’s guitar needs no visual embellishment to evoke the march of foot soldiers during the Troubles; on Bad, Bono shouts “fade away” with the sort of ache that infects his best vocal performances.
This was merely the entree. The main course that follows is Joshua Tree, played start to finish from the high-set main stage with a stunning but calm visual backdrop of scenes of Americana, including visions of the Death Valley desert that provided the album cover’s most stunning artwork.
On rare occasions when the show stutters (like at the outset of With or Without You, where the haunting infinite guitar seems too piercing), Bono is still, at 59, able to rally the crowd with a bellow. Some punters complain about an echo on the vocals, an effect that amplifies the singer at his most searching.
The highlights are (surely not a coincidence) the most political songs from an album pitched musically as an homage to America, but where the lyrics explore its excesses and failures of the 1980s, many of which feel more relevant today to Trump’s United States. There are collapsing coal towns and opioid addicts, thieving preachers and US interventions overseas that feel remarkably fresh.
On Bullet the Blue Sky in particular, a powerful ramble arranged to sound like a fighter jet overhead, the refrain is “outside it’s America”. Never before has that sounded so real, so scary.
It’s hard to explain how a show can pivot from “You plant a demon seed / You raise a flower of fire” on Bullet the Blue Sky to “a mole digging in a hole” on Elevation within the space of an hour – other than that around the songs from Joshua Tree, U2 seems intent on mimicking its transition from rock band to red shimmering caricatures in a way that might (or might not) be intended with irony.
The extended encore of post-Joshua Tree songs replicates too many of the band’s failures since, an era flecked with moments of brilliance that were too often unappreciated as U2 focused its efforts on being the world’s biggest band, rather than its best. There are some crowd-pleasing moments and certainly high points at the back end: the under-appreciated Ultra Violet was remade as an ode to groundbreaking women. But the second section never really recovers from its manic first two tracks, back-to-back early 2000s radio staples Elevation and Vertigo, both from an era where U2 recorded at least a dozen better songs.
The visual effects are amped up and spectacular in the encore, but some don’t stick the landing. One is a sort of submarine/disco ball/kaleidoscope effect that might have been an unexplained attempt at self parody.
Bringing the Joshua Tree tour back (again) seems like an acknowledgement that this band – whose contemporaries have settled into comfortable, crowd-pleasing greatest hits shows – has dropped the pretence that its newer music is somehow comparable to its best. But that shouldn’t be confused with a lack of relevance. U2 has now toured the album three times, but only now has come to Australia. The moment feels right for us too.
It is not until the final song, One, that Bono seems to unravel that thread.
“The way we live in one place affects life in every other place. None of us is really an island,” he says.
“From rising sea levels in one country to catastrophic fires in yours. Big crisis. Global crisis. But we can put out these fires if we act together as one.’’
• U2 is touring major capital cities around Australia in November before heading to Japan and South Korea in December