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Mojo AUGUST 2017 - by Danny Eccleston
BACK IN GOD'S COUNTRY
U2's gigantic Joshua Tree tour began in Canada last month. Danny Eccleston asks them about staying current, rattling the Trump cage and mammoth stage sets.
May 12, 2017. As U2 leave the stage at Vancouver's BC Place Stadium and the hard hats poise to begin tearing down the highest-tech video screen ever seen on a concert stage, a whirlwind extraction operation is nearing fever pitch. In the venue's loading bay Irish women bark into walkie-talkies as a fleet of people carriers rev. Jammed into one with a selection of U2 crew and management, local resident Elvis Costello looks slightly bewildered.
For a U2 tour opener it has already dodged some of the worst potential disasters. The band have not been trapped inside a giant malfunctioning lemon; neither has their guitarist fallen off the stage (as he did in Vancouver in 2015) and lacerated his arm. Even so, back at the band's hotel a post-mortem of sorts has begun. "It was good!" says The Edge. "But there's a list of things this long to look at..."
As bassist Adam Clayton observes, wryly, "It's the first tour we've started where we've known how the album's done." Their 1987 long-player, The Joshua Tree, which U2 are reproducing live, boasts an intrinsic allure that has sold out thirty-three stadium shows, but playing an album in original order brings other challenges. "People react a little differently when they know what's coming next," says Clayton, "and they also react a little differently when they're having an internal relationship with that particular running order."
Setlist Problem 1: where do you start? U2 toyed with the classic two-part show - first half Play The Album; second half More Regular Set - but realised they'd be tossing away Where The Streets Have No Name, a key moment in most U2 shows, at the start. "And when we do it in European stadiums," notes show designer Willie Williams, "it'll still be daylight..."
Problem 2 is that, while richly textured, emotionally deep and - by dint of its thirty-year neglect as a source of U2 live numbers - full of freshness, side two of The Joshua Tree is less well-known and, ending with angrily rocking, Patti-Smith-influenced Exit and saturnine Mothers Of The Disappeared, relatively downbeat. "In the past, when we played Exit, it was a real moment of darkness," says Clayton. "Nowadays, we appreciate the drama of it musically, but I don't think the darkness sticks to us as much."
Accommodating a predictable fifty-minute sequence of music has led U2 to favour a three-part staging. The Vancouver show begins with a stone-faced Larry Mullen Jr striding to the smaller B stage to lay into the iconic drumbeat of Sunday Bloody Sunday ("just to make it clear whose band this is," notes a wag) and is joined, one by one, by his bandmates. There follows a short, stirring summary of how U2 got to 1987 via wide-eyed hits and emotional slowburns, with surprise star billing for The Unforgettable Fire's A Sort Of Homecoming.
After The Joshua Tree fades out with Mothers Of The Disappeared, U2 sprint into the now, past what Clayton calls "a version of Beautiful Day that's kind of set in the future", playing songs that underline U2's contemporary concerns. Achtung Baby's Ultraviolet (Light My Way), with the screen behind the band rolling out a litany of inspirational women, from Aung San Suu Kyi to (ahem) Oprah Winfrey, reconfirms singer Bono's current emphasis on global female empowerment. The Passengers album's epic Miss Sarajevo is accompanied by stunning film of the vast Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan (home to eighty-thousand displaced Syrians) by enigmatically-monikered French artist JR. Willie Williams calls this the future-facing "dessert" after The Joshua Tree's retrospective meat and two veg.
U2's Joshua Tree staging has been in planning since August 2016, when it became clear that Songs Of Experience, U2's work-in-progress, would not be ready for spring 2017. As usual, it's record-breaking (Willie Williams notes that the hi-def video screen is four iMaxes wide) but the films that back the band, mostly shot by Anton Corbijn, who returned to Joshua Tree National Park and Zabriskie Point to recapture the breathtaking vistas he used on the original album sleeve, are video-art stately.
"There's a rigour that really fits with the album," says Edge. "It's beautiful, and epic, but still. Not flash. Not showy. There's a poetry, but it doesn't do very much."
At rest, the screen - painted gold bar a massive silver Joshua Tree, whose 'shadow' defines the B-stage perimeter - looks like a huge sheet of wrapping-paper. When activated, Corbijn's footage, shot at 8x High Definition, dwarfs the group, and he lobbied to use the full width of the screen far more than Williams originally prescribed (Corbijn won). Making the central section of the show even more about landscape, and music, U2 are relying less than ever on iMAG - action shots of the group projected onto the screen. "It's rare, unique to see your work on this kind of scale," notes Corbijn, before explaining his rubric. "It's about putting The Joshua Tree into America now. So with Where The Streets Have No Name we have migrants walking down the road. And for I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, [it begins with film of charred trees] it's like the burnt American dream."
If the show has a controversial political moment it's the use, before U2 tear into Exit, of a clip from a 1958 TV Western series called Trackdown, where a frontier huckster called Trump peddles a fantasy of a coming apocalypse that can only be averted by the erection of a protective "wall". It's a pre-existing YouTube meme that U2 have borrowed and in Vancouver, Canada, it goes down well, but after the show there are dark mutterings among some of U2's camp followers regarding how this piece of found satire will play in heartland USA. Seven days and two shows later, Edge was still weighing the pros and cons.
"There's still arguments both ways," hedges the guitarist. "In a simple, elegant way it makes such an important point. But it's not our place to get too in people's faces about something that's very much their business, and not ours." U2 shows evolve, says Edge, and nothing's a given, "but right now I see no reason why the Trump film won't stay."
As it turns out, U2 stick with the Trump clip in Houston and Dallas - YouTubes suggest it was greeted with unease but no more. There have been other changes. U2 played MLK at Vancouver, later switching it for Bad, before moving to a slimmer Part 1 that cuts to the chase quicker. In early shows a new song - The Little Things That Give You Away - closed Part 2. A much-evolved version of a tune that dates back to 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, Clayton calls it "the most emotional song" on the nascent Songs Of Experience.
Meanwhile, U2 are countering the notion that touring The Joshua Tree is an act of nostalgia, that they're not, in Williams' words "cashing their chips in and retiring to the Bahamas". "I think we were very nervous of falling into that category of, 'Oh dear, has.. Experience run into difficulties?'" says Clayton. "'Is this them celebrating their best years?'"
Confirming arguments for The Joshua Tree's contemporary relevance are events in the world that force its songs into a dialogue with the present. So One Tree Hill, The Joshua Tree's heartbreaking meditation on grief and loss (written for U2 roadie Greg Carroll, killed in a motorcycle accident in July 1986) has been dedicated to the victims of recent terrorist attacks; Running To Stand Still, its essay on addiction and its long-term costs, is a tribute to Chris Cornell.
"It's important for us that this doesn't rest on any kind of spirit of nostalgia," says Edge. "It is a fresh take on these songs, a new way to present them. And draw on whatever timeless quality they have. They do seem to have a new lease of life right now."
WALL OF VOODOO
U2's Trump film in full - you couldn't make it up...
Trackdown, currently (thanks to U2) enjoying more fame than at any point since its cancellation by the US CBS network in 1959, was a Western TV series starring Bob & Carol, Ted & Alice star Robert Culp as ice-cool Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman.
In The End Of The World, Episode 30 of Series One (first broadcast May 9, 1958) a small Texas town attracts snake-oil salesman Walter Trump, a mean-eyed charlatan played with creepy brio by prolific actor-director Lawrence Dobkin, scaring the population with his weird robes and promise of a comet collision that will wipe out everything. Luckily, Trump reckons he can throw up a magnetic "wall" to protect the townsfolk - all they need do is buy his special "force repeller" umbrellas sporting discs of "magnetium"... a snip at seventy-five bucks apiece. Cue chaos as rioting townsfolk break into the town bank to liberate the means to purchase their salvation, and a sceptical Culp/Gilman gets cold-cocked.
Mojo won't ruin the end for you (it's there in full on YouTube) but savour the wise words of the town judge, charged with new meaning in these crazy times: "It's funny how a big lie can make us all kids again."