U2 has been one of the biggest rock bands in the world since the late 1980s with a string of mostly critically acclaimed and multiplatinum-selling albums.

But the quartet, one of the few bands that has been around for more than 20 years with the same four guys, has largely resisted going into full legacy mode and taking fans on a ride on the nostalgia train all the way through Money Mountain.

It’s been nearly three years since U2’s 13th studio album Songs of Innocence was “given” away to (many prefer “foisted” on) iTunes users. And between the backlash from folks who didn’t want the album to automatically appear in their libraries, and the general lukewarm reception, lead singer Bono openly wondered if and how the band could remain relevant in the current pop/rock landscape.

Well, the answer to that career conundrum will apparently have to wait as U2 has embraced its legacy and is performing the band’s watershed 1987 release The Joshua Tree in its entirety.

The tour lands at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium on Saturday night at 7, with opening act OneRepublic. It’s sold out, but you can troll the resale market, where tickets start around $115. After its Cleveland gig, the band — Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. — will take a week off before moving the tour to Europe for a month.

The album, released in 1987 during the Reagan and Thatcher eras, was in some ways U2’s love letter and critique of America, a country by which the group was collectively fascinated. The Joshua Tree went Diamond in America (more than 10 million albums sold), and went on to win Album of the Year and Best Rock performance by a duo or group at the ’88 Grammys.

Coming off the band’s fourth album, the atmospheric and impressionistic The Unforgettable Fire from 1984, The Joshua Tree managed to meld the added musical textures discovered with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois on the former album, with tighter song structures. The album also infused Irish and American roots music to go with Bono’s already established brand of lyrical social consciousness about the “real America” and the “mythical America” with more homegrown Irish concerns.

The result was a massive global smash, topping the charts in America and throughout Europe and Australia and New Zealand, with hits Where the Streets Have No Name, With Or Without You and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Even nonsingles, such as the strident, big-beat Bullet the Blue Sky, made their way to the then still-growing alternative-rock mainstream radio playlists.

The Joshua Tree turned an already internationally popular alt-rock band into superstars with a social and spiritual message.

Massive undertaking

Three decades later, U2 contends that the tour isn’t simply a money-tree-shaking nostalgia trip.

“At first, it was just to honor this album that meant so much to us. It wasn’t any grand concept. It was, ‘Shouldn’t we do something? What can we do that would be special?’?” Bono told Rolling Stone last month, three shows into the tour.

“Then we came up with some of the idea and the thing just ran away with itself, and the more relevant we realized it was. I know from reading reviews and hearing from people, we’ve done it without being nostalgic. It’s like the album has just come out. Nobody is talking about it as an historical thing. People are talking about its relevance now.”

As they have for several tours now, The Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary is a massive, stadium-sized undertaking. Though the band begins with a few pre-Joshua Tree tunes, played on a small stage with no visual accouterments in the order in which the songs were originally released, the show quickly becomes the outsized spectacle one expects from U2. A huge, 200- by 45-foot, 7.6K digital video screen offers old and new photos and footage courtesy of rock photographer Anton Corbijn, who created the original iconic album cover.

Longtime U2 concertgoers will get to see a few of the songs the band didn’t play live at the time, such as the quiet-to-loud, crashing crescendo that is Exit and the quietly pulsing album closer Mothers of the Disappeared, as well as Red Hill Mining Town (which the band had previously never played live).

Naturally, U2 being U2, even after delving deeply and unashamedly into its past, the concert ends with a new song: The Little Things That Give You Away, from the upcoming, still-gestating album Songs of Experience, the other half of the concept begun with Songs of Innocence.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog Sound Check Online at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check. Like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml, and follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ .