A long-ago performance aboard a New Orleans riverboat changed U2 forever.
On Feb. 11, 1982, the fresh-faced quartet from Ireland rocked the President, a riverboat that cruised the Mississippi River while doubling as a concert venue. Tickets were $8.50.
New Musical Express, a popular British weekly music magazine, dispatched Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn to shoot the up-and-coming band. Corbijn would later say he was far more interested in seeing New Orleans than U2.
But he, vocalist Bono, guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. hit it off as Corbijn posed the musicians aboard the President and on the adjoining wharf.
Corbijn has essentially shaped U2’s image ever since. Among many other projects, he shot the iconic desert photographs that decorate “The Joshua Tree,” the watershed 1987 album that elevated U2 to global cultural force. He recrafted their image from earnest to edgy for 1991’s equally massive “Achtung Baby,” then stripped them down to basics again on the cover of 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”
The creative partnership is still going strong at 35 years and counting. Corbijn shot new footage that is used throughout the show on U2’s “Joshua Tree” 30th anniversary tour, which stops at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Thursday. Reserved seats start at $35 plus service charges; standing-room-only floor tickets are $70. Tickets are still available.
The band’s 40-year history encompasses more than 1,300 performances. Prior to Thursday, only three of them were in New Orleans: at the now-demolished Avondale nightclub Ole Man River’s on May 8, 1981, during the tour for the band’s first album, “Boy”; the 1982 gig aboard the President, on the “October” album’s tour; and a poorly attended gig at the Superdome on Nov. 21, 1997, during the "PopMart" tour.
But circumstances far weightier than normal tour stops have brought Bono and company to town on other occasions. And they’ve made the most of those visits.
Lyrically and temperamentally, U2 is a band built to respond to tragedy. Even as U2 became big business, its members maintained a social conscience and sought to find common ground in the service of the common good.
To that end, the NFL called upon them to perform at halftime of the first Super Bowl after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Super Bowl XXXVI happened to be at the Superdome. Bono and his bandmates deftly memorialized the 9/11 victims while still managing to energize the audience. Bono, an unabashed Irishman, opened his jacket to reveal an American flag lining — a show of solidarity and support that resonated around the globe.
Little more than three years later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, The Edge co-founded Music Rising, a charitable organization that sought to replace lost instruments for musicians, churches and schools across the Gulf Coast. He attended the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the first after Katrina, popping up onstage at the Fair Grounds and Preservation Hall.
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Five months later, on Sept. 25, 2006, U2 teamed up with Green Day to supply the soundtrack for the "Domecoming," the reopening of the Superdome on "Monday Night Football." Their rousing pregame performance of “The Saints Are Coming” and “Beautiful Day,” the latter retrofitted with New Orleans references and a local horn section, set the tone for the Saints’ thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons, a victory sparked in part by Steve Gleason’s block of a Falcons punt.
Eleven years later, they return to the Dome for their first full-length New Orleans concert in 20 years.
Throughout the "Joshua Tree" anniversary tour, including a May 24 show in front of 50,000-plus fans at Houston’s NRG Stadium, the band has opened with a smattering of early hits, followed by the entire “Joshua Tree” album in sequence. Themes from that album are still relevant, as contemporary video footage and Bono’s contextualizing commentary make clear.
The two-hour performance, played out in part on a Joshua tree-shaped satellite stage, concludes with another batch of U2 favorites and possibly a song destined for the band’s next album, “Songs of Experience,” which will be released in December.
The album's release will likely lead to another, arena-sized U2 tour in 2018. If history is any guide, that tour, like most U2 tours, will not find its way to New Orleans. The original “Joshua Tree” tour, in 1987, visited the LSU Assembly Center in Baton Rouge but not New Orleans. The epic "Zoo TV" tour skipped Louisiana entirely. After the poor "PopMart" showing, the band's subsequent "Elevation," "Vertigo," "U2360" and "Innocence + Experience" tours bypassed the state, as well.
But on Thursday, they’ll be onstage in New Orleans. And based on past experience, they’ll make this visit count.