U2 made history last night when they took the stage at Bonnaroo, playing only their second ever festival, and first in the U.S. — a fact Bono proudly recalled to the audience near the start of their 2-hour show. The rarity of such a legendary band playing festivals made the event rather monumental; even more so when considering how often in their careers similar bands will play a top billing for comparison. In an era where festival lineups are an almost carbon copy, the ever-changing Bonnaroo tried something different. Unfortunately, the attempt did not entirely pan out as planned.
For even diehard fans of U2, the appeal of seeing them at Bonnaroo is not there. Why pay triple the price of a standalone ticket to see their favorite band play half of a show? The festival choosing, as usual, to not offer day tickets emphasized this decision; other headliners such as The Weeknd and Red Hot Chili Peppers do little to inspire the U2 crowd to hang around for the full weekend. Taking demographics into consideration, U2 fans aren't exactly the target audience for Bonnaroo: they are of a certain age and income level where camping in the mud for four days ceases to be appealing. Turning one of U2's other shows into a destination event, then leaving at a decent hour and spending the night in a hotel, would be a far more appealing allocation of funds for this crowd.
For those who listened to U2 in their youth — or as it were, more likely listened to their parents playing U2 — the band's decision to still play The Joshua Tree album in full was fairly highbrow. To the casual observer who may recognize some singles, but probably can't name a single member beyond Bono, the fact that "Red Hill Mining Town" was never played before is lost upon them. These are the deep cuts for U2, the ones their fans know and adore; but singles are chosen for widespread appeal, especially hit singles, and the fact remains that The Joshua Tree spawned "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" but "Red Hill Mining Town" struggled for three decades to see the light of day for a reason. The average festival-goer would rather hear an energetic set rolling off hit after hit than U2 digging into their back catalog to proliferate the darker, deeper songs off the album that made their career.
By halfway through the show, attendees confused by what they were watching started to pour out of the field. It was getting late, and the decision to wander off to get food, wait at other stages for coming EDM acts, or even hit an early bedtime became all the more appealing as each extended song bewildered people who were unaware of this side of U2, these songs that were older than nearly everyone in the crowd. By then, they had all snagged the image they came for, clogging social media with amateur photos merely offered up to prove to friends they had been there. To the average Joe back home, what U2 played wasn't important, only that their friend had gotten to see them, and he hadn't.
Many bands would have seen the festival stage as a commandment to do what people wanted, expected even. But Bono and the gang don't take orders, a point he proved as he stood on his catwalk continuing to croon long after the fireworks marking their "last song" had gone to smoke. In fact, U2 went three songs beyond their deadline, and nobody stopped them — it's the same attitude of unstoppable arrogance that has kept his band going for forty years. If U2 are on The Joshua Tree tour, they're going to play The Joshua Tree, regardless of if the Bonnaroo crowd wants to hear it or not: and so ensued the groans of "how long does this song go on?" from a crowd likened to bored children.
By midnight, those who had given up on one of the best bands in the world had cleared out enough that anyone adventurous enough to move down the sides could easily walk up to the front railing — a feat that would never be seen at a headlining show, where the devout would have waited since first light, or the night before, to secure that precious territory; also an abnormality for Bonnaroo headlining sets. The abandoners missed out: it was in their encore that U2 finally roared through familiar modern-era rockers like "Vertigo" and "Elevation."
In future, U2 foregoing the festival scene and remaining a headlining act would be an appropriate call. They offer a perfect juxtaposition to the festival scene, pulling into each city along their tour with a giant convoy of trucks that looks akin to a rolling circus. U2 fill in an interesting and very large niche. In one evening, playing alone, they can draw into a stadium or arena enough attendees to rival that of nearly any U.S. festival. As long as they can continue doing this, the need for them to hassle with festivals is widely overkill. For every individual that saw the evening as a once in a lifetime opportunity, five more people under-appreciated the event.
U2 are not a band offering canned, overly-rehearsed performances, which is exactly what a festival wants. A performer that has perfected their routine, stays within the time constraints and doesn't offend anyone is about the perfect choice to build into a billing. A show like that comes across clean, it's easy for everyone to understand, even those heat-exhausted and blitzed out of their mind. Arctic Monkeys in 2014 were one prime example: down to pulling a comb from his pocket and slicking back his coif, frontman Alex Turner had perfected his schtick, and the crowd which beat the What Stage into capacity adored it. Their set was one radio-friendly, recognizable number after another, and every move was calculated.
The ad-libbing, direction changing enigma that is Bono is the complete opposite. If told to zig, he just might zag. If asked for The Unforgettable Fire, he'll give Zooropa. It keeps his fans, his bandmates and himself on their toes. Bonnaroo is a pretty open-minded place, but at the end of the day, Tennessee is still the crossroads of middle America and the south. Bono's repetitive anti-Trump, pro-LGBT sentiments did not fan well over the crowd, with only a scattered few sharing his sentiments and cheering, as the others stiffened. Falling deadpan or not, Bono doesn't care. He has a message, and if it offends someone, too bad.
"Did we make a mistake waiting so long?" Bono asked from the stage. No, Bono, most surely not. For those in attendance last night, remember — history was made, and for those who made an effort to broaden their mind and be open to the experience, they became part of it as well. There are no participation trophies in rock music, but if there were, Bonnaroo's U2 audience does not deserve one.
U2 are Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton. The band is currently on The Joshua Tree tour. For those looking to see one of their epic headlining shows, click here for tickets.