The Lumineers on Opening for U2, Getting Advice From Bono

Americana band will perform 13 shows on the Irish rock titans' stadium tour

The Lumineers' leader Wesley Schultz talks opening for U2 on the massive Joshua Tree Anniversary Tour. Credit: Gallo Images

When it comes to big stadium gigs, Los Angeles is known for its late-arriving, chilly crowds. U2 found this out the hard way in 1987, opening for themselves incognito as unknown alter-ego family band the Dalton Brothers during a Joshua Tree Tour stop at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. "We play two kinds of music: Country and Western," Bono (as Alton Dalton), borrowing a bon mot from The Blues Brothers, told a confused, inattentive crowd.

The scene this past weekend at the Rose Bowl, in nearby Pasadena, was quite different for the Lumineers, who played the second of 13 gigs opening for U2's massive stadium tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of their blockbuster 1987 LP The Joshua Tree. Not only had the sell-out crowd of 85,000 (the largest crowd the Lumineers had played for to date) braved L.A. traffic in time to catch the "Ho Hey" hit-makers, they were on their feet, singing along to "oh oh ohs" and "ooh ooh oohs" of the band's 2012 single "Stubborn Love" like they were the "oh oh-oh ohs" of "Pride (In the Name of Love)." "It would mean the world to us," frontman Wesley Schultz told the crowd when humbly asking them to stand for the set-closing stadium-folk anthem.

Hours earlier, with the first gig out of the way, Schultz was relaxed as he sipped on a cup of coffee in a lobby restaurant of a boutique Pasadena hotel and talked to Rolling Stone Country about opening – and attending – his first U2 show.

"They were just very, very welcoming," Schultz says of meeting the Irish superstars, who gifted them with bottles of Guinness and Black Velvet, for the first time. "I was like, 'Man, I could learn from this.' Because sometimes you're in your own world on tour and you don't meet the [other] bands until halfway through the tour, so it was cool."

The Lumineers' next gig with U2 is May 26th in Dallas.

Did you grow up a U2 fan?
Yeah! … I remember even as a kid I made my dad a CD when I first started playing guitar – he didn't like if you bought him a shirt, something material, he wanted you to make him something – so I had this really shitty microphone, and I recorded all these covers and I think I recorded "One" for him.

I think they’re the type of band that, at least where I grew up in New Jersey, they were always on the radio – you didn't know a time when they weren't around. For my age group (Schultz is 34), they were the biggest band in the world. My biggest pleasure listening to songs, and songwriters, is when something feels transcendent, and to see their music go around the world and transcend language and regions, to me it feels like the closest thing to a good song, is a good song, is a good song. [U2] represents that to me.

Coming off a headlining arena tour, what was your first emotion or reaction when you got the offer to open for U2?
We said yes quickly, and I think the reason was because we had said no to at least two bands that are all-time amazing bands, and at the time we were like, "We'd rather play to 200 people than 20,000 or 40,000, because those [200] people will be listening to us." At the time, that was our mantra, that made sense. But I look back and I would have loved to be around those bands and seen … there's something about being around that energy, and I think that authenticity, that's really a privilege to be around. I think this time around we're trying to make amends for saying no to certain opportunities.

How did you feel going into the first show of this tour?
Pretty intimidated. I set my expectations the same way I had going into the White House. … I had it in my head that I’m not going to let this beautiful experience be ruined by expectations that are too high. With this, it was very similar, where I said to myself, "If you ever have any contact with the band, great! And if you have a great experience, great!" But it was an amazing thing to be asked to do.

I really didn't know what the reaction was going to be, how open the audience would be to a band. And I think we're a band that, as time has gone on, we were beneficiaries of [having] a big song ["Ho Hey"], and that's great for a while, and then it's something that you actually have to prove – that you had a whole album behind that, and that you can make some more songs. So in this second album [2016's Cleopatra], our whole mantra, unknowingly, was actually to prove [ourselves] or surprise people once again.

That audience last night, what I sensed was, "Oh, I know this song," and then it was, "Oh, I think know that one" or "Oh, they did that one?" There's a body of work there that I think they begin to trust you. But when their perception is all around something that was on the Top 40 station, it's an uphill battle that you have to fight to win the crowd over again. And I thought [last night’s show] went really well because of the songs, it wasn't because of some gimmick. We’ve always played "Ho Hey" usually as the second or third or fourth song in the set, at our own shows and at these as well, because it's important to say, "This is a song, we appreciate this song, but we care about all these songs a lot."

And you know these people aren't going anywhere.
Yeah! [Laughs.] They’ve gotta stay, so let's get this out of the way. I think the coolest part was trying to turn the page on this album. … It was intimidating going into that, [too].

And really you’re doing that in the moment on these U2 shows.
You have the rest of the set to prove your worth. And I think I like that, because we believe in that. We're performers last; we’re songwriters first. And so we've had to learn a lot of how to play in front of audiences. It's a much more natural gravitational pull for us to just sit in a room and write songs. It took us a really, really long time to improve [as a live band] and to make it a show. [Wilco's] Jeff Tweedy says, "Albums, that's art. The performance is entertainment." Knowing that, I see how Bono merges those very beautifully. He actually puts nutritious elements in with the entertainment, but he also knows, talking to him just a little bit yesterday, he's always concerned with how is that flow going, because he wants to mix the sugar with the medicine. … I think that's something that's always influenced me and fascinated me: How do you have people unknowingly experience a different kind of music, a really meaningful song, without being overly preachy or overly sappy?

Going into it without expectations, like you were saying, what was going through your head onstage?
It's been a while since we've opened for somebody. Before the show Bono said, "It's very appropriate that it's a stadium, because going into it is like a gladiatorial combat situation where you have to win the crowd or you get killed." He was saying that about their own show, so it kind of motivated me. … I was watching their show last night, and I looked at my watch and it had been over an hour, and it felt like 10 minutes. It was like, "Wow!" They keep it moving, the screen was the clearest screen I’ve ever seen.

Had you ever seen U2 before?
No, no. That's what's really cool about this, too. That was on my bucket list, to go see them, and now I get to see them, like, 15 times [Laughs].

Watching the show last night, was there a moment you most connected with?
My buddy was there, and his mom is sick, she's dying, and he's just crying and we're arms around each other, and he's singing, I think it was "With or Without You," because those lines just kind of hit [us], and that happens everywhere around the stadium. That's what struck me – we’re not isolated to that –and how special [it is] that music, as non-intimate of a venue as it is, can transcend that venue.

It also goes back to that mixing the sugar with the medicine you were talking about. U2 will front load their set with hits before playing Side B of The Joshua Tree, or even a new song the crowd's never heard before, and try and keep everyone on their feet.
The Edge was saying, "You'll see, the anatomy of the set will change from the beginning to the end of [the tour]." And then they were like, "If you notice anything, let us know." [Laughs] I think they were really fascinated by the arc [of a show].