The band's first U.S. show since '88 has less posturing and more muscle

Once you were the biggest group in the world; now it’s 1992, and what have you done for us lately? U2 understood the contradictory demands accompanying its first U.S. tour in nearly four years: Do something new, but play the hits. Be intimate, but accommodate millions. Provide substance, but don’t forget the fun.

The tour began on leap day, hitting the 7,100-seat Civic Center in Lakeland, Fla., like a thunderclap. Something new? How about an Orwellian, high-tech stage that projected an apocalyptic olio of images, text, and concert footage onto video screens scattered about like cluster bombs even as a phalanx of gutted East German Trabants hovered menacingly overhead? Hits? The show provided plenty. Intimacy? Try a three-song MTV Unplugged-style acoustic hoedown on a tiny platform mid-arena. And as for accommodating those millions of fans, they’ll have to settle for a full array of arena and stadium concerts as the tour continues over the next eight months.

The spectacle is named Zoo TV, after both ”Zoo Station,” the grinding splat-rock workout that leads off the band’s current top 10 album, Achtung Baby, and the wild technological daring that beams TV, from a satellite dish, onto the dozens of stage monitors. (Bono could even change channels.) Adding an ominous tone were those ignominiously strung-up Trabants, the Iron Curtain Edsels the band picked up while recording in Berlin last year.

The scarifying one-two opening punch was ”Zoo Station” and ”The Fly” (also from Achtung Baby), done at hellish volume as images screamed by on the video monitors. An extended run-through of most of the current album followed, all clanking rockers and soaring ballads; it ended with Bono and the boys trouping down a runway to a small stage at the center of the arena for their acoustic interlude. With fans pushing in all around, they stood in a circle to chant a lilting ”Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” deliver a shivery, magnanimous ”Angel of Harlem,” and make a slightly overripe run at the evening’s sole cover, Lou Reed’s ”Satellite of Love.” Then, with the volume back up, came the hits — everything you’d want to hear from The Unforgettable Fire, Rattle and Hum, and The Joshua Tree. (The band offered no songs from its first three albums, and no apologies, either.) The encore was a bleak dissertation on love, including a biting ”With or Without You” and a stark, uncompromising ”Love Is Blindness” to calm the crowd and close the show.

On its 1986 stadium tour, the band’s rhythm players — bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. — demonstrated how to fill a stadium with sound. They are now, if anything, even more powerful — at times Bono could only ride the locomotive-like rush of their enormous beat. But the evening’s MVP was guitarist the Edge, whose glittering peals of sound and screaming technological effects — call it ”Edgenoise” — dominated the show. As for the jut-jawed Bono, well, he’s taken someone’s advice and deep-sixed a lot of his self-importance and posturing. (Here it is an election year and he wasn’t even telling us how to vote!) His blowsy excesses calmed, he became a charismatic and oddly likable front man: His costume changes — from Berlin street thug to silver-lamé-draped Elvis-like clown, kissing his image in a mirror to the opening strains of ”Desire” — pulled the show along from its disturbing beginnings to its good-natured climax.

In the current depressed economy everyone from Bruce Springsteen to the Cure will be touring, trying to capture the imagination of a jaded audience. At this point, U2 is the band to beat: the gritty, goofy, concussive, and rhapsodic song cycle that debuted in Lakeland demonstrates again how you get a reputation for putting on some of the most powerful and inventive shows in rock: You earn it.