U2 Steps Out of Comfort Zone for Bonnaroo Headlining Set, Still Triumphs

For first U.S. festival headlining set, band courts younger generation with classic album

Our report from U2's Friday appearance at Bonnaroo, the band's first U.S. festival headlining set. Credit: Douglas Mason/Getty Images Entertainment

Somewhere near the end of almost every U2 show, Bono humbly tells the crowd, "Thanks for giving us a great life." For their headlining set at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, he instead thanked festivalgoers for "getting out of your tents and caravans and giving us a night we'll never, ever forget!" He also joked, "What an extraordinary thing Bonnaroo is, thank you for naming it after me."

Though currently touring stadiums playing 1987's The Joshua Tree in its entirety, Bonnaroo provided a unique challenge: A field that holds tens of thousands of people, a crowd full of Eighties and Nineties babies that may not have been born before Achtung Baby and an audience primed on the bombast of EDM and hip-hop. 

The fact that the band was playing with a somewhat scaled-down production to fit on the festival's What Stage (think more Zoo TV than PopMart) almost made this show feel intimate compared to their recent spectacles. It was all a unique barometer to test the real power of a U2's famed show.

The band front-loaded the set with six of the most iconic hits of the Eighties – "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "New Year's Day," "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and the first three tracks of The Joshua Tree. Still, Bono and company seemed nervous for the show's first 30 or so minutes. That tension (and ultimate release later on) made for a thrilling set. It's not every day you get to see Bono intimidated by a crowd, and this is a band that's at its best when it has something to prove. 

By the middle of the two-hour set, he was conjuring Nick Cave going after a phantom Donald Trump with possessed, murderous rage. He screamed at Bonnaroovians to hold out their hands during a dark, ferocious version of "Exit" that saw scorching bursts of feedback from the Edge. For jam fans used to seeing Warren Haynes or Trey Anastasio, Edge gladly provided face-melting iconic solo after iconic solo.

The band's fine-crafted moments of transcendence were still in effect – like Bono's impassioned speechifying on human rights causes – and warhorses like a show-opening "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and show-closing "One" felt fresh and frenetic in the context of Bonnaroo. 

Impressively, the band made rarely-played album tracks like "Red Hill Mining Town" and "Trip Through Your Wires" (parts of The Joshua Tree's second side) into some of the show's most memorable moments, inspiring an ocean of cellphone lights in the crowd during "One Tree Hill," which he dedicated Chris Cornell's daughter Lily Cornell. "Her dad had a wonderful heart," the singer said.

"Thank you for listening to The Joshua Tree," Bono told the crowd as the final notes of "Mothers of the Disappeared" faded. It felt like he was talking to thousands of kids who'd instead made 2000's "Beautiful Day" the band's "Born to Run" moment in recent years.

Set list:
"Sunday Bloody Sunday"
"New Year's Day"
"Pride (In the Name of Love)"
"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"
"Exit"
"Mothers of the Disappeared"
"Beautiful Day"
"Elevation"
"Vertigo"
"Ultra Violet (Light My Way)"
"One"