SEATTLE — U2 doesn’t want to become an oldies act. But that Irish band couldn’t resist booking a tour of quickly sold-out stadium concerts featuring all the songs from its 1987 album, “The Joshua Tree” — songs that were still both brash and high-minded when U2 performed them here on Sunday night at CenturyLink Field. It was the first United States show, after a premiere in Vancouver, of an extensive world tour. The band will also release elaborate, expanded 30th-anniversary editions of the album.
U2 has been laboring over new songs. According to Bono, U2’s lead singer, the band had finished recording “Songs of Experience” — the sequel to its 2014 album, “Songs of Innocence” — but the 2016 elections sent the tracks back for further rewrites. At least one new song is finished; the concert included it, “The Little Things That Give You Away.”
“The Joshua Tree” was worth revisiting. It was a pivotal album for U2, one that announced and then fulfilled grand aspirations. The songs pondered 1980s America as both myth and presence: its landscape, its stated ideals of freedom and openness, its culture, its sensuality, its violence. The lyrics addressed spiritual and romantic quests along with political and economic predicaments, connecting them all with language that drew on both the Bible and Beat poetry.
Meanwhile, the music on “The Joshua Tree” decisively expanded U2’s scope with a new influx of American sounds, a growing assurance in layering rhythms and textures, and a recognition of rock’s history before punk, back to Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground. With “The Joshua Tree,” U2 assumed the mantle of a generationally important band.
“The Joshua Tree” was also a worldwide hit album that propelled U2 onto the stadium and arena circuit, where it has remained. It included U2’s only two No. 1 singles in the United States, “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”: songs about seeking love, faith and answers.
U2 started the concert on a small stage, lighted simply as if it were playing a club and performing songs from albums before “The Joshua Tree”: thoughts on terror (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”), displacement (“A Sort of Homecoming”), longing (“New Year’s Day”) and transcendence (“Bad”), full of arm-waving, chorus-singing audience participation.
During “Pride (In the Name of Love),” the 1984 song about the assassination of the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a towering video screen showed words from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Then, for the performance of “The Joshua Tree,” the whole screen lit up and the band members took places on the full-sized stadium stage. They were ascending the way their career did.
“The Joshua Tree” was performed against that video backdrop, often with starkly beautiful desert scenes by Anton Corbijn, the photographer for the “Joshua Tree” album cover and many other U2 graphics. The band was dwarfed, but the music wasn’t. Larry Mullen Jr. on drums, Adam Clayton on bass and the Edge on guitar tore into the urgent rhythmic flux of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Against the craggy postpunk groove of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” both Bono’s falsetto and the Edge’s guitar leads were keening sirens.
“The Joshua Tree” was a high-water mark of an era when leading rockers were eager to be role models and do-gooders, putting on benefit concerts like Live Aid and Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour, which both included U2. A backlash would soon dismiss similar efforts as naïve or pretentious, but U2 has persisted. It doesn’t write scolding protests; it strives for empathy, hope and, ultimately, exaltation.
One reason to revive “The Joshua Tree” is that its concerns — personal, societal, mystical — haven’t disappeared. Some of its songs hold eerie resonances with present American problems. “Running to Stand Still” is a portrait of an addict, while “Red Hill Mining Town” contemplates vanishing mining jobs. For “Mothers of the Disappeared,” an elegy for political prisoners, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam sang a verse, and U2 was also joined by Ben Harper and the concert’s openers, Mumford & Sons.
Before “Exit,” the screen showed a clip from a 1950s television show, “Trackdown,” about a con-man character named Walter Trump who promised to build a wall for safety. Then, after showing Robert Mitchum’s hands tattooed “Love” and “Hate” from his role as a fanatic preacher and killer in “The Night of the Hunter,” Bono strutted and gesticulated, declaiming the song in a black suit and preacher’s hat.
Songs from U2’s post-1980s catalog were linked to causes. Graphics turned “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” into a celebration of present and historical — make that herstorical — female achievers. “One” was dedicated to the battle against H.I.V./AIDS and to Bono’s antipoverty organization, ONE. In “Miss Sarajevo” by Passengers, a U2 side project, images of wartime devastation, refugees and a 15-year-old Syrian girl dreaming of immigrating to the United States were shown as Bono sang, “Is there a time for keeping your distance/ A time to turn your eyes away,” and later recited the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus,” from the Statue of Liberty.
Still, U2 refused to rest entirely on its past. Its new song, “The Little Things That Give You Away,” has lyrics about anxieties and a creative crisis: “So far away from believing/ That any song will reappear,” Bono sang. The music started out as a moody piano ballad, but before the end the momentum had multiplied, with a doubletime beat and even faster rhythm guitar.
The band couldn’t let that energy go; Bono impulsively called for an oldie, “I Will Follow,” U2’s first single. Bono urged the crowd to take the roof off, but this was U2’s longtime habitat, a stadium. There was no roof.