Early in U2’s triumphant return to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Thursday, Bono articulated his modest goal, or "prayer," for the evening: “That we might have one of those nights that none of us ever forget. An epic night of rock 'n' roll. That’s all.”

He and his bandmates have never lacked grand ambition. For two hours at the Superdome, they fully realized it, and then some.

Revisiting the 30-year-old “The Joshua Tree,” their most popular album, is by definition a commercially expedient appeal to nostalgia. Most of the 35,000 or so tickets available for Thursday’s show were sold, in contrast to U2’s last full concert at the Superdome 20 years ago on the PopMart Tour.

But this didn’t feel like nostalgia. It felt like the most substantive "big" band of the past three decades doing what it does best.

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Following a tidy opening set by the droll-humored Beck and his multifaceted band, U2's Larry Mullen Jr., with little fanfare, strode onto the main stage and along a runway leading to a Joshua tree-shaped satellite stage. Once settled at his drums, Mullen struck the familiar military cadence of the anthemic “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The Edge followed with the song’s ringing guitar hook; once Bono and bassist Adam Clayton joined in, they achieved lift-off.

“New Year’s Day,” with Edge pulling triple duty on guitar, keyboards and backing vocals, led into a shimmering, sumptuous “Bad” and the defiant resolve of “Pride (In the Name of Love).”

That four-song opening salvo established that, even if they are no longer storming the world's ramparts — Bono is 57 and not three years removed from a devastating, high-speed bicycle accident — they are still U2.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I have a dream" speech scrolled on the four-story video wall, the foursome reset themselves on the main stage to showcase “The Joshua Tree” in sequence. New footage shot by Anton Corbijn, the Dutch photographer who has crafted U2’s visuals since meeting the band in New Orleans in 1982, filled the LED screen’s 200-foot-wide expanse with vibrant, high-definition desert imagery.

U2’s lyrics are oblique enough for listeners to assign their own meanings to them. Those who wish to find Christian spirituality can; Christ Church of Covington recently joined other Episcopal congregations who have staged “U2charist” services using U2 songs as hymns. A more secular and/or humanistic philosophy can also be discerned.

Regardless, U2 aims to uplift and inspire. “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the opening track on “The Joshua Tree,” did just that, right from the chiming echo of its opening guitar. The band then swung casually into “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” with Bono turning the opening lines over to the audience.

He dodged the imaginary fighter planes of “Bullet the Blue Sky," then sashayed and stalked a camera while emoting like the Bono of old in an ominous "Exit." As the show progressed, his voice grew more supple and strong, in "With or Without You" and elsewhere.

The Edge returned to the keyboards for “Red Hill Mining Town,” but the arrangement suffered without his guitar's distinctive tone. His "Bullet the Blue Sky" solo was especially jagged.

As they moved into the more subdued Side 2 of “The Joshua Tree,” Bono warned, “There might be a few scratches.”

They tweaked a certain president with a 1958 clip from the TV Western “Trackdown,” in which a con man named Walter Trump promises to protect the townsfolk by building a wall.

Bono spoke his piece about immigration policy. “This country has always been a country of refuge, and we hope it stays that way,” he said, noting that the Irish “were the original dreamers.” 

But he is a political pragmatist willing to work with anyone for the common good: "From the left and from the right ... you're all welcome here tonight. We'll find common ground" in "this place of shelter."

Before “One Tree Hill,” written for a friend who died in a motorcycle accident, Bono acknowledged Republican Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, still recovering from a bullet wound: "We wish him continued strength and we hold him in our prayers.”

Throughout the tour, New Orleans native Ellen DeGeneres’ portrait has appeared in the gallery of notable women that accompanies “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)." Other regulars include Oprah Winfrey, Patti Smith, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt. At the Dome, local chef Leah Chase and civil rights icon Ruby Bridges joined the gallery.

U2 balanced such appeals to the head and heart with songs aimed squarely at the hips. An animated Bono bore down on a blistering “Elevation,” with its buzzsaw riffs and woo-hoo refrain. Without pause, the band segued into the slashing, high-octane “Vertigo,” U2’s last great anthem to date.

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'The Saints Are Coming' in New Orleans. #U2TheJoshuaTree2017 #mbsuperdome

A post shared by U2 Official (@u2) on Sep 14, 2017 at 10:37pm PDT

And then, a surprise — a snippet of “The Saints Are Coming,” the vintage Scottish punk song that U2 and Green Day fired up at the Superdome's “Dome-coming” reopening in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. They banged away as black and gold fleur-de-lis flashed on the video wall. “We should figure out how to do that," Bono joked.

He saluted “local hero” the Edge, whose Music Rising charity replaced instruments lost to Katrina. Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Quint Davis — in Bono’s words, “Mr. Jazz Festival” — received shout-outs for their Dome-coming roles.

U2 superdome fleur de lis saints are coming

U2 performs a truncated version of "The Saints Are Coming" at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. The band last performed that song in the Superdome before the "Dome-coming" game in 2006, as the Dome reopened for the first time after Hurricane Katrina. 

“This is New Orleans, this is America, and there is nothing this country cannot accomplish when you work together as one,” Bono proclaimed. Cue the pulsing bass of the ballad “One,” accompanied by Texas and Florida flags onscreen and an appeal for Red Cross donations.

After the “old songs,” Bono introduced a new one: “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” the melodic, mid-tempo lead single from their forthcoming album, “Songs of Experience.”

They’d performed it for the first time only four nights earlier, in Indianapolis, and hadn’t quite figured out the blocking. “I can stand here,” Bono suggested to his bandmates, positioning himself near Mullen’s drums on the satellite stage. As well-rehearsed and meticulous as most of the show was, here was a genuine moment of four musicians muddling through a fresh challenge.

At the song’s conclusion, the Edge started to set down his Fender Stratocaster, only to be stopped by Bono. The singer wanted one more: “I Will Follow,” an adrenaline rush from the band’s 1980 debut, “Boy.”

The Edge normally uses a Gibson guitar for “I Will Follow.” This, Bono proclaimed, was the “first time ever” that the song’s clarion call was conjured with a Stratocaster: “Miracles can happen in New Orleans!”

So can epic U2 concerts.

Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.

Keith Spera writes about music, culture and his kids.