April 04, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

EW reports back from U2’s latest tour

Let’s hope Bono doesn’t double as tour accountant. ”Okay, we haven’t played this one since 1983!” he announced in prefacing ”40,” the concluding number of U2’s tour-opening March 28 show at the San Diego Sports Arena. Actually, the band was still ending each concert with this War-time adaptation of Psalm 40 as recently as 2001, and the song has reappeared on occasion since then, so his math is. . .fuzzy. But the point is clear: The old U2 are really back, even back-er than on their previous back-to-basics tour a few years ago. And if you’re too young to have seen one of the original shows that ended with the band members hitting the showers one by one, leaving drummer Larry Mullen Jr. as the last man standing while an arena full of gleeful drunks kept the King David cover alive a cappella, now’s your chance.

Reinvention? That’s so late-’90s. Fifteen of the 25 selections dated from ’91 or before, while 7 of the remaining 10 derived from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb; that juxtaposition of old and new was intended to contextualize the fresh material as U2 Classic, too. It was a gambit that paid off handsomely early in the 120-minute set, as the one-two punch of ”City of Blinding Lights” and ”Vertigo” was succeeded by spectacularly muscular and moody versions of ”The Electric Co.” and ”An Cat Dubh/Into the Heart,” tunes that truly haven’t escaped mothballs since before grunge broke. But this sense of adventure gave way in the latter half to a predictable battery of nonstop familiarity — all ”Pride” ‘n’ anti-prejudice and ”One”-upmanship — leaving you to wonder if U2 have faith in Dismantle‘s ability to form the emotional and thematic core of a show or are content to make this the official tour of the iTunes digital boxed set.

Their ongoing quest to transform arena rock from hoary experience to holy experience still provides wondrous moments. Even the stage design is now all about openness and communion. The band eschews backdrops in favor of bathing fans behind the stage in beautiful swaths of purple and pink: LED screens that occasionally drop down come in the form of see-through beaded curtains, as if opacity or barriers of any sort were the enemy. And if the song sequence increasingly tilted toward oldies, at the very end the show slouched toward Bethlehem, with a potent final pocket of hymnody that found the hard-rockin’Christian bubblegum of ”All Because of You” leading into a hootenanny-style reading of ”Yahweh” and the folk-mass sing-along of ”40.” Bono wrapped up the services by clutching his chest and thanking Adam Clayton, the Edge, Mullen, and Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, there’s nothing like a little mid-’80s time travel to make U2 fans praise the Lord. A- — Chris Willman

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