“We’re a band from the Northside of Dublin,” the singer, who goes by Bono Vox, told his audience Sunday evening. “We’re called the U2. This is our new song.”
It was his way of kicking off “I Will Follow” – not a new song, but the jagged post-punk classic that exploded out of Ireland in 1981 to launch the band to international superstardom – and also introducing the long autobiographical arc at the heart of U2’s show at Washington’s Capital One Arena.
After decades of refusing to look backward – to become “a heritage act,” in the disdainful formulation of guitarist the Edge – U2 in recent years has begun to assess its history. Bono, the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. are all in their fifties; the band they formed as teenagers turns 42 this year – remarkable, perhaps unprecedented longevity for a single, unchanged unit.
U2 toured last year in support of the 30th anniversary of “The Joshua Tree,” its 1987 exploration of Ronald Reagan’s America, refreshing the music for the age of Donald Trump.
Now the band is attempting something more personal: A show that traces the members’ own history, not only as a group, but as individuals growing up in the divided Ireland of the 1960s and ’70s, suffering losses private and public, blazing their way to pop music superstardom, grappling with fame and power, and trying to work out how to direct it toward a larger purpose.
It’s ground U2 has traveled in its last two albums, 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” and last year’s “Songs of Experience.” As Bono explains: It’s the story of a boy who loses his innocence, gains experience and tries to regain his innocence.
For this concert, the band slotted older material in among the newer songs to complete the story. (U2 returns to Capital One this evening.) It was setlist as narrative: Songs were ordered in a kind of chronology, not by when they were written or recorded, but when the events they depicted happened in the members’ lives. So early in the set, “The Ocean,” from 1980’s “Boy,” led into “Iris (Hold Me Close),” from “Songs of Innocence” – both are about Bono losing his mother at 14.
This gave way to “Cedarwood Road,” about the street on which Bono grew up. And then “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which the singer linked to the coordinated bombings in Dublin and Monaghan of May 17, 1974, that killed 34 civilians and wounded more than 300. It was the attack, he said Sunday, that brought the troubles spilling over the border from Northern Ireland into the Republic.
With its martial drum tattoo and chiming guitar, the anti-war “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was recorded and is generally performed as a kind of call to action, as when the band used it to open “The Joshua Tree” show last June at FedEx Field in Landover. But the version Sunday was restrained, mournful – Mullen tapped out the beat on a single snare drum; the Edge didn’t stab the familiar notes, he sprinkled them.
The setup Sunday was a large traditional stage at the west end of the arena and a smaller circle stage at the east end, linked by a long, elevated walkway. For “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and other songs, the quartet positioned themselves at even intervals along the length of the walkway and faced the sides of the arena, making it a building-length stage – a commanding platform from which to communicate.
The chronology continued through fame and material success: “Vertigo” and “Desire.”
“This is when it all goes to our heads,” Bono said. “All right, it was my head.”
From its beginnings, U2 has engaged in the public as well as the personal, so any autobiography must also reckon with the band’s activism. Bono said “Staring at the Sun,” on the surface an examination of a personal relationship at a crossroads from 1997’s “Pop,” was written as the sides in the Northern Ireland peace process approached the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
He briefly revived his MacPhisto character, his Mephistophelean tempter of the early 1990s, to leer in delight at the divisions currently polarizing the United States. Glad he was, MacPhisto said, to be in the nation’s capital during a moment of such discord. In character, he implored the crowd to keep it up, and to avoid at all costs the C-word: Compromise.
Screens above the walkway showed footage of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists skirmishing with protesters in Charlottesville, Va., last summer. Then, as a kind of tonic, images of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, and “(Pride) In the Name of Love.”
“This is a great country,” Bono said, a favorite refrain. “It’s the country that gave the world Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. It’s the country that gave us Elvis Presley and Miles Davis.”
Before the encore, he spoke of a word that he said had perhaps been the most important for holding together their families, the band, the world itself.
“Love,” shouted some in the audience. “Peace,” guessed others.
“Compromise,” Bono said — a contrast to MacPhisto’s direction from earlier.
The Edge slid into the familiar groove of “One,” and Bono delivered the lyrics as a kind of a benediction: “One life, with each other, sisters, brothers, one life, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other – carry each other.”