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U2 Bring Heart And Soul To New Tour

When the members of U2 walked off the stage on their 1997-1998 “PopMart” tour, the final image was a heart framed by the outsized “golden” arch – a juxtaposition that perfectly encapsulated that tour’s muddy concept, as the group had strained to find a balance between earnest emotion and smirking irony.

On their current “Elevation” tour, the band wears their hearts on their sleeves or, to be more precise, on the heart-shaped runway that surrounds them and a portion of crowd, reaching halfway into the arena. Allowing much of the audience close contact with the band, the stage, along with the mostly understated production, gives the generous two-hour performance an intimacy and human scale that U2’s last several overweening tours often lacked, for all their imaginative flash. With a set list that ranged over their entire catalog, it also served to show that while U2 have taken on many guises in their 20-year career, the band’s music has remained consistent in its compassionate intensity.

The first half of the show showcased the “back to the roots” production promised by their band’s recent “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” (Interscope). After U2 entered the arena without fanfare, the show lifted off with the tour’s theme song, “Elevation,” performed with the house lights up. With the confidence that only stars with two decades of hits can muster, they followed it with their current single “Beautiful Day” and the rarely performed “Until the End of the World” and “Kite.”

On the bare stage, the band was bathed in a warm white light, with the huge video screens suspended above the stage broadcasting black and white images of the band. The early going brought to mind David Bowie’s 1975 “Station to Station” tour: Both productions followed highly theatrical tours that pushed the envelope of concert staging but felt empty at their centers. But the chilly elegance of the Thin White Duke is miles away from Bono’s warmth and humor. The U2 frontman lacks Bowie’s conceptual focus; he’s a more conflicted – and interesting – figure. Even as the band eschews rock-star trappings, he can’t quite leave them behind, starting the show dressed in a black leather jacket, black pants and wraparound shades, a modified version of his Fly persona.

He’s also something of a ham, prancing around the runway, standing with one arm in his jacket, mugging for the cameras, reaching out to the audience in a vaguely papal manner, his hands just out of reach of the crowd. From almost anyone else, this could be embarrassing, but Bono carries it off – it comes to him naturally. Fans can argue about his often self-important, almost messianic attitude, but there’s no doubt he’s blessed with a riveting, charismatic presence. Whether the band (whose playing, all evening, was of an especially high caliber) performs its grand anthems, such as “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” or assays lower-key material like “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” (which Bono dedicates to the late INXS singer Michael Hutchence), you can’t take your eyes off him.

At the halfway point of the evening, Bono took time to do what he called “the hardest part of a singer’s job” – introducing the band – which is followed by a mini-set featuring Bono and guitarist the Edge. Standing toe to toe at the tip of the runway, their versions of the soulful “In a Little While,” “Stay” and the Bo Diddley-esque “Desire” were as breathtakingly heartfelt as anything performed this year.

When the full band returned, the concert’s lighting scheme grew more colorful, adding reds and blues to the mix as the production becomes more elaborate. A smaller version of “PopMart’s” video wall occasionally rose behind the band and a projector threw op art images and occasional lyrics around the hall. The effects were used judiciously, although at times they had a disappointing literacy – dancing silhouettes for “Mysterious Ways,” scudding head lamps for “Where the Streets Have No Name,” a ham-fisted (if well-intentioned) anti-gun message during “Bullet the Blue Sky.”

But by the second encore, U2 were back where they started, on a bare stage with only their music. “Walk On” gave the night its uplifting benediction; its embracing, supportive emotions were the perfect capstone to what will be remembered as one of the best arena rock shows of this – or possibly any – year.

U2 will appear in New York at Madison Square Garden on June 17 and 19, and at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., on June 21 and 22.

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