The big, brilliant rainbow hung high above the Tampa skyline for as long as it could, a good half hour and change, a harbinger of Irish gold if ever there was one.
Then the sun set and U2 took the stage at Raymond James Stadium. And for the rest of the night, every last color belonged to them.
Unbowed by an afternoon of showers that had some 60,000 poncho-wrapped fans fearing the worst, the Irish rock superstars delivered a vivid, cinematic and magnificently colorful performance as part of a 30th anniversary tour celebrating their landmark album The Joshua Tree. For multiple generations of fans, from U2 lifers to the kids and grandkids on their laps, it was all they were looking for and more.
“Thank you for your patience,” Bono said. “Thank you for giving us a good life. These songs belong to you. We’ve been playing them a long time, and we’re playing them for you tonight.”
“Playing” was an understatement. The band practically painted the songs of The Joshua Tree before our eyes, splashing their romantic vision of the American west across a canvas befitting a masterpiece, a 200-foot-wide high-def video board that stretched nearly the width of the stadium floor. Every song lit up in brilliant new hues, from bloody reds and mesmerizing prisms to bright, bold footage of the American men and women of Bono’s dreams: Weathered, hardscrabble, bound to their earth, awaiting a fate unknown.
At first, though, it was nothing like that. At first — moments after the pre-show rainbow dissipated into the inky sky — U2 emerged to a stark, smaller B-stage one by one, with Larry Mullen Jr. popping out the tribal warbeat of Sunday Bloody Sunday, then the Edge swinging his guitar back and forth, then Bono stomping and punching the air and Adam Clayton thrumming out a rhythm. Then came New Year’s Day, then Bad, then Pride (In the Name Of Love): Four mega-hits to get the crowd chanting, even before The Joshua Tree kicked in.
The video backdrop then bloomed to blood-red life for Where the Streets Have No Name, the album’s timeless and perfect Side 1, Track 1. And from that point on, the set was as visual as aural, with colors bursting from the screen like a fresh 96-pack of crayons — crimson moons, indigo skies, blaze-orange mountainscapes, electric Joshua trees that glowed in every hue. On Mothers of the Disappeared, orange candles held by a row of mourning women flickered against a background of deep aquamarine. Even black and white footage, some of filmed by Anton Corbijn to evoke of The Joshua Tree’s original artwork, exploded to life as if in 3-D.
For lifelong fans, the thrill of this tour was hearing some of The Joshua Tree’s lesser-played songs live, and the band was up to the task. Clayton and Mullen remain a rock-steady rhythm section, with Clayton’s bass guiding the way through indelible hits like Red Hill Mining Town and Bullet the Blue Sky. Bono’s voice had its moments — a wobbly, jazz-inflected delivery to open With or Without You, for instance — but in some ways he’s an even better singer today than in 1987, a little more limited in range but more in control of the notes he does hit.
And ever the perfectionist, the Edge and his guitars were a sight and sound to behold, from the watery pings of Bad to the screaming feedback of Bullet the Blue Sky to the bucking-bronco blues of Trip Through Your Wires. Even when he switched to an organ, his sound filled the stadium — Bono called for the Edge to take the audience to church on I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, but Running to Stand Still is the song where it actually felt like he got them there.
Apart from the nostalgic appeal of the music, though, why tour The Joshua Tree in 2017?
To hear Bono tell it, some of its songs feel as relevant as ever in a deeply fractured America — think of Red Hill Mining Town, he said, and the modern debate over coal’s place on this planet; or In God’s Country, and “how the landscape can change in a person, in a town, in a country, even a magnificent country like this one.” One Tree Hill, he dedicated to the city of Orlando, “for the Pulse nightclub and for the 49 souls that were taken away last year. There is no end to grief, and that’s how we know there is no end to love. We will honor them with action.”
What that action entails, well, that was open to interpretation. Bono did not praise Sen. Marco Rubio, as he did a few nights prior in Miami, nor did he explicitly criticize President Donald Trump. Instead he spoke obliquely of a “mass movement that changes things and changes history. It’s worth remembering that in a time of great” — here he paused before spitting the next word — “personalities, sometimes it’s actually just what the people are doing. It’s the power of the people that’s always stronger than the people in power, right?"
The encore felt like a greatest hits of Bono’s life in activism. War-torn peoples? Check: A dramatic reworking of Miss Sarajevo was dedicated to the Syrian refugee crisis. Feminism? Check: The rousing Ultra Violet (Light My Way) featured chartreuse- and fuchsia-tinted portraits of women throughout history, from Rosa Parks to Lena Dunham. AIDS and HIV? Check: One, of course, that all-time lighers-up anthem of togetherness.
Even as Bono stumped and speechified and preached to his choir, none of it diminished the artistry of U2’s music and stadium-spanning visuals. Never did the light fantastic trip like it did on the final three dialed-up songs — the prismatic rainbow of Beautiful Day, the futuristic cobalts of Elevation, the dizzying blacks and reds of howling closer Vertigo.
During Beautiful Day, Bono spliced in a few bars of Singin’ in the Rain, a nod to the afternoon downpour, but by that point, the rain was long forgotten. After the flood, all the colors came out. The night was as brilliant as the day.
-- Jay Cridlin