Concert Review: U2 – The Joshua Tree Tour 2019 – Mt Smart Stadium, November 8, 2019

U2 brought The Joshua Tree Tour to Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium last night, celebrating the 1987 album and tour of the same name while elevating their hypnotic rock magic through breathtaking visuals and the largest high-resolution LED screen ever used in a touring show.

There’s an unspoken rule of music journalism about not including personal stories in a review, about putting the focus on the music and the performance instead of yourself. After all, who wants to read about the first time you heard an album, or what it means to you, when all musical experiences are uniquely subjective to each of us?

I moved to New Zealand when I was six and, on the way here, my family visited America and we drove across its great, vast landscape over the course of a few weeks. I remember little about the trip; I tried ranch dressing for the first time, I bought baseball cards, I fought in the backseat of the car with my brothers, but one memory that always stuck with me is repeatedly listening to U2’s 1987 album, The Joshua Tree.

In writing about last night’s concert, this seemed the only way to begin this review, because we all have a U2 memory or experience that is unique to us and each of us alone; maybe you’ve shed a thousand teenage tears to With or Without You, spent the early hours of the morning singing I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For at the top of your lungs, or listened to endless repeats of Beautiful Day as summer broke in the early 2000s.

But it’s in these unique, individual, and subjective experiences of a band like U2 that we as a collective audience find a shared and mutual connection: the lasting and memorable impact this music has made at various points in our lives and for just as many reasons. This, above all else, is what last night’s performance represented, an experience that felt unified and glorious in its celebration of all the beautiful, heartbreaking, compassionate and soul-baring potential music can offer the world and the hopeful but disconnected people living in it.

There’s little point reviewing U2 based on their musical merits; at this point in their career, a sold-out stadium performance is either expectedly magnificent and spectacular or a shameful disappointment. However, last night’s concert fit overwhelmingly into the first category, opening with dimmed stadium lights and a gentle build of The Whole of the Moon, as the band emerged on stage through rolling mist to roaring appreciation from the eager crowd.

Crimson lighting drenched the stadium and the pulsating floor crowd as the band launched into Sunday Bloody Sunday, with Bono addressing the crowd and expressing his wish that the ‘we have one of those epic nights of rock ‘n’ roll that we never forget. Let go of some things, and hold on to others,’ before following with New Year’s Day, Bad, and Pride.

Every member of U2 has a phenomenal stage presence, which is often only elicited by the greatest and most impactful bands and somehow causes time to stand still. The infinite charisma of leader singer, Bono, crowd-controlling drums of Larry Mullen Jr., soulful, funky bass of Adam Clayton, and the one-of-a-kind balance between howling guitar and delicate keys of The Edge managed to capture the youth of their early work and the refined maturity of their combined growth as a band over the years.

Looking around the stadium at a sea of fans waving their arms, singing along, or clapping in perfectly timed unison, this felt like the type of concert you reminisce about, the kind that many argue no longer exist, or are lost to a sepia-tinted memory of 80s and 90s nostalgia. This feeling was driven home further as the group began their main portion of the setlist, a sequential performance of The Joshua Tree in its entirety, which for myself and many others in attendance was an exquisite musical dream-come-true.

As the band moved through Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, With or Without You, and Bullet the Blue Sky, a new series of captivating films by original-recording photographer, Anton Corbijn, flooded across the cinematic screen behind the band, flowing across Death Valley and Zabriskie Point with exceptional clarity – last night U2 raised the bar for grand open-air performances with the most impressive stage setup I’ve ever witnessed.

A 200-by-40-foot stage was the foundation for the breathtaking 200-by-45-foot custom-built LED screen behind it, comprised of 1,040 individual video panels and stretching almost the entire width of the stadium, featuring a silver Joshua Tree extending into the heavens above. From the main stage, a runway and smaller stage were designed to imitate a shadow of this gigantic visual centrepiece, which the band used to their full advantage throughout the concert, giving many front-row fans the view and experience of a lifetime.

During a pre-show tour of the stage, U2 Creative Director and Show Designer, Willie Williams, discussed how the most crucial aspect of the screen’s construction is the inclusion of custom-designed structural beams, which provide an unobstructed view of the screen to the entire stadium by suspending the lighting and PA rig above the screen instead of to the side and in front of the stage. For fans located anywhere throughout the stadium, this offered the opportunity to witness U2 in crystal-clear precision, magically bridging the gap between performer and audience to provide a completely equal and shared experience.

Photo: Dara Munnis. @daramunnis

A performance of One Tree Hill was dedicated to the late New Zealander the song was written by Bono as a tribute to, Greg Carroll, with the close friend and U2 roadie’s image presented on screen throughout the number. Following the final sequential number of Mothers of the Disappeared with Angel of Harlem, the crowd were treated to an eight-song encore featuring a small selection of their most famous greatest hits – weaving powerful energy through Elevation and Vertigo before the spell-binding visuals and magic-man performance of Even Better Than The Real Thing injected vibrant and playful energy into the set.

A crowd-soaking rainbow-Technicolor performance of Every Breaking Wave preceded Beautiful Day, before the final three songs of the night showed the band’s commitment to spreading vital social awareness through their music.

Ultra Violet (Light My Way) featured a scrolling visual montage of pioneering women throughout history in support of the ONE organisation’s Poverty Is Sexist campaign, with images of Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, and Kate Sheppard mixing with Pussy Riot, Indian, UK, American and Japanese Suffragettes, alongside Helen Clark, Jane Goodall, Jacinda Ardern, Yusra Mardini and Greta Thunberg, to name just a few.

The band closed with a fitting performance of Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way, before delivering a final, heart-wrenching and emotional tribute performance of One, dedicating the finale to the victims of the March 15 Christchurch mosque shootings, as each of the departed’s names began to slowly fade into view on the screen behind, gathered over the green star-and-crescent symbol of Islam and the Muslim community.

And this, in the end, was what this show was all about – not about stretching out vanity or putting on an elaborate concert for the sake of money, but for providing the world with a reminder of those life-changing and uplifting moments their music has brought throughout our lives. For reminding us that there is a sea of sparkling, illuminating light in a world of unimaginable darkness. It was an experience that, on the surface, was a technological and musical masterpiece by one of the world’s greatest bands, but at its heart, depicted a message of hope and beauty in a complicated and confusing world that so often seems absent of both those vital, human elements.

With 3 million fans witnessing The Joshua Tree Tour between 2017 and 2019, this latest tour delivers that powerful message of inclusivity and connectedness with tone-perfect precision – that we are, despite our different beliefs and wildly different lives and experiences, all one. One species, capable of appreciating and sharing one unified and intensely beautiful love for one band, even if only for one night – which made this a performance so beautifully genuine, that it is one I will never forget.

~Oxford Lamoureaux

Click to view a full gallery of U2 photos shot by Ivan Karczewski

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

U2 Setlist

Intro – The Whole of the Moon
Sunday Bloody Sunday
New Year’s Day
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
Mothers of the Disappeared
Angel of Harlem

Even Better Than the Real Thing
Every Breaking Wave
Beautiful Day
Ultra Violet (Light My Way)
Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way