Beth Nabi (@bethandbono) is traveling Europe documenting U2 fan tattoos at all The Joshua Tree 2017 European shows for the U2 Tattoo Project (http://U2TattooProject.com ). Here Beth reviews this week's show in Berlin.
An American chasing an Irish band through the United States, the UK, and Europe on The Joshua Tree 2017 tour, I found myself in Berlin yesterday a stranger in a strange land. Everything that comes so easily back home is now a challenge abroad: counting change, navigating the subway, finding your ticket entrance. The differences make you feel like an outsider. But when Larry's militant drumbeats kick in on "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and Bono's voice calls out from the catwalk—"oh oh oh"—and the crowd echoes back, you realize you're all sharing the same language tonight. The crowd sang louder and jumped higher than most audiences I've been in in America, and I sang and jumped with them. And the Germans know how to organize a stadium wave.
There was a sense of awe for being in the Olympiastadion—such an historic venue—and even more for being in Berlin, as Bono called it, "the very heart of Europe."
Last night, as I stood in the rain on the floor of the stadium, I wondered how U2 would resurrect The Joshua Tree in Berlin after coming to the city 27 years ago to chop it down. And how they would pull off playing an album rooted in 1980s America in 2017 Europe. But, there's nothing Bono loves more than paradox.
U2 ran into the arms of Berlin to "dream it all up again" after the huge commercial and critical success of The Joshua Tree. Experiencing division, dislocation, angst and self-doubt, the band turned to their heroes to help find the next expression of themselves. David Bowie and Iggy Pop both recorded seminal albums at Hansa Studios in Berlin, so U2 set out for the city, as the perpetual pilgrims they are, to find their new musical purpose - what would become Achtung Baby. As the Berlin wall was being torn down and the city underwent the struggles of reunification to find a new identity, so too would U2.
Bono's recurring theme of unification and solidarity and tearing down walls was never more pronounced than in the home of the infamous Berlin Wall - the symbol of the Cold War and divide between communism and democracy, the symbol of lack of freedom. That the wall is now asunder was highlighted in "Miss Sarajevo," (renamed "Miss Syria" on this tour) when clauses from Article 1 of the Grundgesetz (Germany's Constitution) regarding inviolable human dignity and personal freedom scrolled in German on wide-screen photographs of Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
And the show took its usual jab at those who would build walls: As a prelude to "Exit," the screen featured a snippet from a 1950s episode of the American western TV series "Trackdown," in which a snake oil salesman named "Trump" claims he will build a wall in order to protect the town from the end of the world. In America, the video is met with mostly cheers but some jeers, depending on who you're standing next to - typifying the polarized political climate and continuing great divide in my country. Last night on the floor, I heard laughter as the overwhelming response. Perhaps rightfully so, as Berliners know a thing or two about walls meant to separate "us" from "them."
That vignette certainly brings back the origins of The Joshua Tree, as an ode to two opposing Americas. Not necessarily left and right, but imagined and realized. Thirty years later, the struggle still wages on between what America is and what it can be.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was featured, as she's been in the States, in the "Herstory" video as the band played "Ultra Violet," a fitting homage to her efforts—against some opposition—not to close Germany's borders. Ironically, on this day the U.S. refugee program surpassed the Trump administration's 50,000-person cap as imposed by his revised "travel ban," denying refugees from not just Syria but all over the world entry into the country. When "Miss Sarajevo" was played in the U.S., the words enshrined in the Statue of Liberty were displayed: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…."
As Bono thanked the Germans for their Nachbarschaft, or "neighborliness," he proclaimed, "You've got to stand up for who you are - we can work together." He added, "If the one thing we can agree on is important enough, we can work together - one Europe." Much of Bono's speechifying last night also thanked Germany for its commitment to human rights, and was followed by an impassioned appeal during "Mothers of the Disappeared" to Turkey's President Erdoğan to stop human rights abuses.
While the setlist of the concert wasn't significantly different from shows in the United States, the context was. The show is still anchored by the main set of The Joshua Tree album, performed in order and entirety, but Bono's snippets and speechifying created accents that celebrated Berlin and the city's importance to the band.
During "Bad" in the first set, Bono referenced their journey: "Berlin, so many memories for us. Berlin, some ghosts. We came as pilgrims. We still do." He sang extended snippets of Bowie's "Heroes," recorded at Hansa, and the German language version of the song, "Helden." He would later snippet Bowie's "Young Americans" and "This Is Not America" in "Mysterious Ways," and Iggy Pop's "The Passenger," from Lust for Life, which was also recorded at Hansa.
The other theme for snippets was the night's constant rain: Gene Kelley's "Singin' In The Rain" showed up before "Bad" while the show ended with The Beatles' "Rain" after "One." But the rain didn't faze the crowd of 70,000. In fact, as if on cue, it picked up during "One Tree Hill" as Bono sang, "and when it's raining, raining hard, that's when the rain will break my heart." The canopy covering Larry's drum kit added an ethereal quality to the production of Anton Corbijn's landscapes that spread out behind the band - familiar in that we've grown to know them from the album artwork, alien in how different they are from where most of us come from, even in America.
I have made my pilgrimage to Death Valley and the iconic Joshua Tree, the one featured in Anton Corbijn's spectacular photograph on the 1987 album art. There, I experienced a fallen, dying, decaying tree. Last night, I experienced the rebirth, rejuvenation, resurgence, and relevance of The Joshua Tree. The show is a vibrant, immersive production that celebrates the ideals of togetherness, unification, and democracy, in moving song and imagery. U2 fittingly concluded the night with "One," an ode to unification, as Bono sang in the steady rain from under a cowboy hat reminiscent of the tour's first go-round. A migrant in my own way last night, Bono, U2 and my German neighbors welcomed me in. Danke.
Beth Nabi (@bethandbono) is Associate Professor of Graphic Design and Digital Media at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. She is currently traveling Europe documenting U2 fan tattoos at all The Joshua Tree 2017 European shows for the U2 Tattoo Project (http://U2TattooProject.com ), an ongoing curation and study of U2 fan tattoos. The Project exhibited last year at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, during the U240 fan celebration of U2's 40th anniversary.