By Whitney Pastorek
Updated October 10, 2005 at 11:11 PM EDT
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U2 swung back through Madison Square Garden Friday night for the first of five sold-out dates, which boggles the mind, especially when you consider: 1) the tickets were not cheap; 2) they played two sold-out dates here in the spring; and 3) it feels like How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb has been in stores since approximately 1992. But all it takes is 10 seconds of the opening song — “City of Blinding Lights” — to remember why they’re the biggest band on the planet. As Bono materializes in a spray of confetti, the crowd goes freakin’ wild, and even the most jaded/distracted-by-the-baseball-playoffs among us would be hard-pressed to suppress goosebumps.

Ok, so — la la la — U2 rocks. One thing. The show, while excellent (I would like to emphasize that you cannot go wrong with the U2), felt a little rote. Yes, they’ve been out on this tour since time began. Yes, I saw them twice in the spring. But I’m not a jaded person, and I give Bono a lot of rockstar leeway because, come on, he’s Bono — you expect him to maybe go up there and be withdrawn? And yet… it felt a little rote.

It was the middle of the first set — a “Love and Peace”/”SundayBloody Sunday”/”Bullet the Blue Sky” block– when I felt myself yawn.Maybe it’s because the stage show through this section was exactly thesame as it was in the spring: Bono’s leapy, Native American drummingthing. His CoeXisTheadband and its accompanying little Bono-patter (“Jesus, Jew,Mohammed, it’s true; Jesus, Jew, Mohammed…”). There’s a bit where hepulls the headband over his eyes and kneels in front of the drum riser,hands crossed over his head. Last May, it felt like a passionatecomment on Abu Ghraib, but given everything that’s happened since then,now it just feels dated and weird. (At least this time he didn’tdedicate “Running to Stand Still” — a song about heroin — to themilitary. That was awkward.)

I’d like to pretend I didn’t see it all coming. I’d like to pretendthat I don’t know Bono uses a TelePrompTer. I’d like to pretend a lotof things.

addCredit(“U2: Bernat Armangue/AP”)

Look, a U2 show is what it is, and it is very good at being that. It’s a moment in time when things happen that seem spontaneous– Bono’s movement on the ellipse, for example, or the way he pulls people out of the crowd — things that make you feel a part of something ephemeral, dynamic, once-in-a-lifetime. U2 is perhaps better than any other band ever at generating that feeling, and doing it with a minimum of pomp and a maximum of really good music. But you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s not choreographed within an inch of its life.

The night was not without its high points, naturally, the first of which being, oh my God, it’s freakin’ U2! The aforementioned “Running to Stand Still” was replaced by “Miss Sarajevo,” that Passengers single the band did with Pavarotti back in 1995, and Bono did a damn fine job handling the opera part all by himself. “Stuck in a Moment” is holding up really well, especially in the nice acoustic version they’re playing now. They threw in “Fast Cars,” the final song off the U.K. version of Atomic Bomb (I had to Google that to know what it was). And I could listen to “With or Without You” for another 20 years and it would never get old.

But I missed some of the variety that our Irishmen, who have 11 albums and countless covers under their belt, should be able to provide. (No, Bono dear, the weird chorus of “Old Man River” doesn’t cut it.) Despite what my concertgoing companion might think, this complaint is not just because they didn’t play “Bad,” and the Achtung Baby portion of the spring show — which was truly excellent — seems to have disappeared in favor of “Crumbs From Your Table” (snore). It’s because they didn’t play much of anything not borne of Atomic Bomb or a set list you could put together in 30 seconds on a napkin. (“Where the Streets Have No Name”? Check! “One”? Check!) When you’ve got songs like “Stay (Faraway So Close)” and “Elvis Presley and America” and “Until the End of the World” at your command, why not use them?

I think the lesson I learned here was: Don’t go see U2 more than once on a tour. Nothing feels worse than rolling your eyes at a band you love, nothing in the world. But, first-timers, ignore my grumpiness: DEFINITELY GO. Love it. Hold up your cell phone and text your name to save Africa or whatever when Bono asks you to. Scream along to “Pride” at the top of your lungs. Revel in the coolness embodied that is Adam Clayton.

If you’re gonna spend $160 on just one concert this year, this is the one. (If you’re gonna spend $160 on more than one concert this year, my email address is easily Google-able and I would like to be your friend.)

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