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They’ve created some of rock’s most iconic albums and performed them in dozens of countries around the world on some of the biggest, most elaborate (and expensive) stages imaginable.

But Saturday night in Cleveland was—if you’ll pardon the pun—a sort of homecoming for Ireland’s U2, who dropped in to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree album with thousands of enthusiastic fans (old and new) at First Energy Stadium.

The concert came just a few months shy of the third leg of the original Joshua Tree Tour, which brought the “I Will Follow” band to these very grounds on October 6, 1987 for a legendary Municipal Stadium show with openers Los Lobos and Little Steven.

So much has changed since then, and yet so much remains the same. U2 singer / showman / philanthropist Paul “Bono” Hewson wore his arm in a sling back then (a Cleveland cop reminded him of the injury). His band was on the cover of Time, Rolling Stone, and just about every other periodical (music-related or not) courtesy of the new record’s slew of topical, radio-friendly hits.

Sure, U2 had enjoyed hits before, what with “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” landing on the charts (and MTV) from earlier efforts War (1983) and The Unforgettable Fire (1985).  But Joshua Tree was zeitgeist-tapping stuff, a heady set of cerebral, cowboy-rock inspired by the group’s love of American roots-rock and R&B and Bono’s own experience witnessing Third World poverty, hunger, and military madness.

The record was so big—its cultural influence so wide—that Bono and the boys had to (to quote the singer) “go away for a while” to reinvent themselves.  Which they did—in marvelous fashion—on 1992’s kraut-rock and EDM-influenced Achtung, Baby!

And yet so little has changed for U2, its fan-base, and the world at large.  We’re all three decades older, to be sure, but our political leaders are none the wiser, having not learned from history after dismantling the Berlin Wall.  We’ve got another bonehead in the White House hell-bent on a New Cold War and determined, idealistic new enemies across the Atlantic (and Pacific).

None of which is lost on Bono, who’s incorporated some of those goings-on into the lyrics of U2’s last few discs: Songs of Innocence, No Line on the Horizon, and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

But the Joshua Tree material remains as timely as ever, and what better way to commemorate the music than turn back the clock with the millions of listeners who heeded the clarion call of its Amnesty International auteurs?

Bono and guitarist The Edge have repeatedly said in interviews that U2 is greater than the sum of its parts, that the songs (of desolation, isolation, revelation, of temptation) are bigger than the band’s four musicians.  That much was clear in Cleveland when the quartet—or four tiny figures that appeared to be the quartet—strode a catwalk down to a satellite stage smack in the middle of the Browns’ football field and tore into “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” and “Pride” to the delight of GA ticketholders who’d queued up early to get prime spots on the floor. During “Bad” Bono called for Cleveland to show its “stars,” which they did in the form of thousands of aloft cell phones.

It was the first of the night’s many cool visuals.

Back on the big stage, U2 trekked through Joshua Tree front-to-back, starting with the jangling, anthemic “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the gospel-tinged “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and a still-aching “With Or Without You.”

All four band members were dressed predominantly in black save bassist Adam Clayton, who wore a white T under his jacket.  Edge sported one of his now-trademark beanies.  Bono rocked purple shades, and his hair seemed a few shades more auburn than full brown. The singer—so nicknamed for his “good voice”—can’t nail all the high notes of his youth but still possesses enough of his uncanny pipes to give boisterous breath to his scripture. The man can sell every word of it, and convinces you he believes it, too.

Edge impressed on Fender Stratocaster and Gibson explorer guitars and lent his familiar background voice via a headset microphone that allowed him to roam while strumming and picking through the angry “Bullet the Blue Sky” and melancholy “Running to Stand Still.”  Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. still has his slicked-back hair and earrings—and a knack for providing a sturdy backbeat without overdressing the songs with needless look-at-me flourishes.

The stage was wide but sparse, with the group’s only visual conceit being its massive 200 x 45 foot 8K LED backdrop (comprised of over 1,000 panels). The screen’s default was a silhouette of a Joshua tree (whose shadow took the shape of the aforementioned B-stage on the field) but displayed eye-catching desert scenery and other artsy images designed by photographer Anton Corbijn (who shot the iconic black-and-white covers and related pics from Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree). 

Our favorite video clips included the scarlet moon sequence from “One Tree Hill” (a song written for a young crew-member killed in a motorcycle accident in the mid-‘80s) and “Mothers of the Disappeared” (whereon a row of women held candles in homage to their kidnapped children…and one by one the flames flickered out).  "A Trip Through Your Wires" was brisk...and slathered with campfire-style harmonica.

Bono said it felt good to slip back inside the Joshua Tree songs again:

“They’ve taken care of us all these years.”

Later, the singer got more to the point.  “Thank you for giving us a great life,” he told fans.  “We don’t deserve it.”

After the majestic, moving album cycle the band encored with a surprise number from its 1995 side project with Brian Eno, the Passengers Original Soundtrack 1.  The video accompanying “Miss Sarajevo” featured a 15-year old girl at a Syrian refugee camp whose sole wish was to live in America, the “land of dreams.”  A banner of the girl’s face was unfurled and passed around the lower seats until the tarp became hopelessly distorted. 

But the boys in the band stayed true. “Pass her around, hold her up!” instructed Bono.

“Beautiful Day” and “Elevation” were choice entries from U2’s 2001 effort, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  2005 rocker “Vertigo” never felt as carefully-crafted or thematically weighty as other songs in the catalog, but it made for a potent arena-shaker.

Bono led the audience in a run through “Happy Birthday” for a roadie and danced with a female fan on energetic Achtung offering “Mysterious Ways.”  During “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” the mega-screen bore pictures of famous females throughout history—including late Cleveland music journalist Jane Scott.  Another clip satirized President 45 in the personage of a carnival huckster who tells townsfolk he’ll protect them…by building a wall.

Conversely, the communal “One” bonded band and audience together one final time…and capped this portion of U2’s North American tour.

Here’s hoping they don’t take another ten years to roll through time.

Colorado alt-rockers One Republic opened at dusk with a few bouncy keyboard / guitar tracks from 2013’s Native and 2016’s Oh My My.

“We’re sorry if you thought we were One Direction,” joked singer Ryan Tedder, who ventured into the crowd eight tunes in to mingle.

The quintet’s smashes “Apologize” and “Counting Stars” went over best.  Tedder’s cover of “What a Wonderful World” was spot-on…but he mistakenly attributed it to Dizzy Gillespie instead of Louis Armstrong.

No worries.  

It was a solid start to an epic night of music—and messages of unity and hope—on the Erie shore.