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U2's 'Joshua Tree' and America come full circle

U2’s masterpiece “The Joshua Tree” took its name from a tough, twisted species of tree in the deserts of the American Southwest said to have been compared by Mormon pioneers to the Old Testament prophet Joshua, limbs outstretched in supplication, guiding them toward the Promised Land.

On its cover, four stonefaced Irishmen stood alone in black-and-white desolation, while inside the music was dusty with blues, gospel and folk. This was an album about a quest and about America, an America that had lost its way.

In early 1987, when U2 released “The Joshua Tree,” the United States was a nation besieged by controversy over back-channel government deals with a sworn enemy, festering secrets that would be laid bare that summer in the Iran-Contra hearings, which shook the Reagan White House and divided the nation.

Against this bleak backdrop of social and political pessimism, “The Joshua Tree” was a tonic of aspirational radicalism, its uncomplicated humanity and frank invocation of spirituality nurturing a provocative hopefulness. Elevated further by remarkable musicianship and sophisticated sonic innovation, U2 announced itself as a band looking beyond arena-filling rock stardom toward something larger.

“The Joshua Tree” was both a response to what U2 was witnessing in its travels in America, Africa, South and Central America — expressed most eloquently in the searing “Bullet the Blue Sky” — and an offering of deliverance, a way forward in a time poisoned by duplicity and cynicism.

On Sunday, June 11, U2 will arrive at a sold-out Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on a tour that honors the 30th anniversary of “The Joshua Tree,” playing the album in its entirety, along with other fan favorites. U2 is not a band that likes to wallow in nostalgia, but tentative plans to celebrate “The Joshua Tree” with a tour gained traction after the 2016 presidential election, according to U2 guitarist the Edge.

“It's like a pendulum has suddenly just taken a huge swing in the other direction,” the Edge told Rolling Stone. “That record was written in the mid-’80s, during the Reagan-Thatcher era of British and U.S. politics. It was a period when there was a lot of unrest. Thatcher was in the throes of trying to put down the miners' strike. There was all kinds of shenanigans going on in Central America. It feels like we're right back there in a way. … These songs have a new meaning and a new resonance today that they didn't have three years ago, four years ago."

Leaving its political context aside, “The Joshua Tree” was the album that made U2 superstars, with hit singles “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” putting the band on the cover of Time magazine and at No. 1 on the U.S. album chart for the first time. Along with an Album of the Year Grammy Award, the video for “Streets,” shot on top of a Los Angeles liquor store, also won a Grammy.

While Sunday’s concert will offer all the “Joshua Tree” hits, it also will include the rarely heard “In God’s Country” and “Red Hill Mining Town,” before this tour never performed in concert.

One of the magical moments of the evening will be “Bullet the Blue Sky,” a forceful mash-up of Bono’s howling proselytizing and incendiary guitar from the Edge, a song later recorded live as a powerful centerpiece to the 1988 U2 documentary film “Rattle and Hum” and the album of the same name.

On an album filled with biblical imagery, the antiwar message of “Bullet the Blue Sky” invokes one of Scripture’s most memorable struggles: “In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum / Jacob wrestled the angel / And the angel was overcome.”

Last year, in a video interview for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit “Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics,” Bono described the song’s origins in a 1986 trip to visit refugees in the hills of El Salvador, where the United States was supporting government troops in a decade-long civil war.

"I remember the ground shaking, and I remember the smell, I suppose, of being near a war zone. I don't think we were in danger, but I knew there were lives in danger or being lost close to us, and I felt for them. It upset me as a person who read the Scriptures, to think that Christians in America were supporting this kind of thing,” Bono says. “I felt it was wrong. … As a student of nonviolence, I had a violent reaction to what I was witnessing.”

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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