Before U2 returned to Nashville last week—thirty years having passed since the last time they performed here—Matthew Perryman Jones decided to get some friends together to play some of their favorite songs from the U2 catalogue, a testimony, of sorts, to the witness of four Irish guys, and a way of saying thanks to the biggest band in the world. Nashville author David Dark got things started by telling the crowd, “I don’t know how to explain myself to myself apart from U2.”
That sentiment was shared by most of the performers—a lineup that also included Sarah Masen (w/ Bulb), Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, Thad Cockrell, Mike Farris, Stephen Mason, Kate York, and Griffin House. Each artist told us how they had discovered U2’s music in middle or high school, how their songs assured them that they weren’t alone in the world, and how their horizons had been expanded by the encounter. Matthew Perryman Jones told us about the first time he saw them live, on the Joshua Tree tour, and how he walked out of the arena listening to the people around him in the parking lot still singing the last song, and he thought: “So that’s what music has the power to do.” One by one, before singing a favorite song, each artist bore witness to the work of U2’s music in their lives.
As is to be expected whenever a group of people are deeply moved by a work of art—be it a poem, song, movie, painting, or anything else—there will be others who don’t understand and respond with rolled eyes or mocking comments. When one artist made the claim that he feels like U2 saves his life about every five years, I saw some in the crowd suppressing laughter and looking annoyed by what they considered hyperbole. I felt differently.
As a teenager, I heard people talk about this band called U2. I even heard people say that some of the members were Christians, and that there was something of depth and value in their music. But raised as I was to disdain rock-‘n-roll, it was all laughable because, come on, they used drums and electric guitars, an obvious sign of rebellion against God.
I didn’t come to appreciate the witness of U2 until years later in my early twenties. I met a childhood friend for drinks one afternoon and we spent five hours catching up, trying to explain to each other, and to ourselves, where our journeys had led us and how we were attempting to make sense of life and adulthood. We traded books and CDs over the next couple of years and at some point he gave me a mix CD of his favorite U2 songs. The first song on it was “Walk On,” and he introduced it by telling me about an experience during college, an unspeakably hard time for him. Among other things, his parents were going through a difficult divorce, and he couldn’t always see a reason to keep on going. At the end of each day, he would take a walk around the campus, ending up at the bluff overlooking the city, listening to U2 on his headphones. More than once, he told me, the only reason he didn’t take one more step, the only reason he didn’t give up hope and go over the edge of the cliff, was Bono singing these lyrics:
I know it aches,
And your heart it breaks,
And you can only take so much.
Walk on, walk on.
…Stay safe tonight.
Today, my friend is a good father to two beautiful girls and a loving husband to his wife, at least in part because of the witness of U2. Even if I had not had similar experiences with their music myself, I would still be grateful to them for my friend’s sake.
After the U2 tribute show, I was at home, finishing up work for the evening, and I pulled up U2 in my iTunes and played some of my favorite songs. I listened to “Walk On,” and when it ended I hit play again. Twice. And then I put away my work, turned up the stereo and played it again.
Crawling into bed that night, I picked up the book on my bedside table, Ian Cron’s Chasing Francis, a biography of sorts in which a man documents his spiritual journey through journal entries addressed to St. Francis. I opened the book to the page where I had stopped reading two nights earlier and picked up where I left off. Here’s the first thing I read:
A few years ago I went to a U2 concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City, just three months after 9/11. Most of us in the arena that night probably knew someone who’d died in the Twin Towers; we’d lost three people in our church alone. I’ll never forget the end of the concert. As the band played the song “Walk On,” the names of all those who had died were projected onto the arena walls and slowly scrolled up over us, and then up toward the ceiling. At that moment the presence of God descended on that room in a way I will never forget. There we were, twenty-five thousand people standing, weeping, and singing with the band. It suddenly became a worship service; we were pushing against the darkness together. I walked out dazed, asking myself, “What on earth just happened?” Of course, it was the music. For a brief moment, the veil between this world and the world to come had been made thin by melody and lyric. If only for a brief few minutes, we were all believers.
If I were to try to describe my experience at the Nashville U2 concert, standing in the inner circle, twenty feet from the stage, Bono at times just six feet away and singing his heart out, I imagine my words would sound a bit like Ian’s. I don’t know how to articulate what it feels like to stand in the middle of 45,000 people as they sing “Walk On” at the top of their lungs, or what it was like to watch as Bono stood back and listened to the crowd singing the first verse and chorus of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” letting the thunder of that multitude of voices wash over him, or how to convey how special it was to hear Bono and The Edge segue into “The Wanderer,” the first live performance of the song they’ve ever done—a song they wrote and recorded with Johnny Cash.
And of course there’s the moment everyone is talking about; after the band took their final bow and was about to walk off stage, Bono noticed a guy holding a sign that read “Blind Guitar Player.” Bono told him to come up on stage, called for his guitar, and hung it around the man’s neck. The blind man wanted to play a song for his wife and started strumming the opening chords to “All I Want Is You” as Bono took the lead vocal. “You say you’ll give me eyes in a moment of blindness,” the lyric goes. At the end of the song, as the guy started to take off the guitar, Bono stopped him and told him to keep it, concluding an unforgettable evening for that man and for the rest of us gathered that night. I walked out of the stadium with my friends, sore and sweaty and tired, but most of all, grateful for the witness of U2.