The guys in U2 seem to have found what they've been looking for: Intimacy with their U.S. audiences once again.

After spending the late 1980s and most of the '90s performing in gigantic stadiums, the Irish rock superstars have retreated to arenas for the current Elevation 2001 Tour, which arrives tonight at sold-out Target Center in Minneapolis. It was a decision designed to showcase the back-to-basics sound of U2's new album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind."

"For this record and for these songs, it wasn't really an option to take on a stadium tour," U2 bassist Adam Clayton said Sunday. "It was important for us to feel that connection with the hard-core U2 audience and to create an environment by having general admission where people could kind of get off and enjoy rock music in a very raw, physical state."

On the European leg of the PopMart Tour in 1997-98, the band discovered an intimacy that had been missing on the U.S. segment, where chairs were set up on football fields. In the states, it was less fun, Clayton said, because the people in the front rows "didn't necessarily want to get involved in the shows." In Europe, fans were free to roam on the fields.

So for this tour, U2 has made the seats in front of the stage general admission -- and the lowest ticket price ($46.50, whereas on the sides the tickets are $86.50 and $131.50).

Adding to the intimacy is the fact that the show is devoid of extravagant production touches such as the giant lemon, mirrored cars, mammoth video walls and the phone calls to the White House that typified U2's stadium tours. Clayton doesn't necessarily prefer the stripped-down approach, but it is easier because all he needs to do is concentrate on playing.

"This is definitely a more physical show," he said. Because there's no highly produced spectacle, "the audience seems to bring something themselves."

On this tour, lead singer Bono, who turns 41 next week, has sometimes body-surfed atop the faithful. "I don't think he'll do it if he thinks he's putting his body at jeopardy," Clayton said. "It's really a place he likes to get to in a show -- to try and get out there and rub shoulders with the people in the audience. It's important to him that he has that physical contact."

Ramones connection

Like recent U2 concerts, tonight's probably will feature a tribute to Joey Ramone, the punk-rock icon who died of cancer two weeks ago, reportedly while listening to U2's "In a Little While." A friend of the band, Ramone visited the Irish rockers when they performed on "Saturday Night Live" in December. They had no idea how sick he was, Clayton said.

A Ramones show in Dublin during the '70s actually inspired the formation of U2. "We really had no money," Clayton recalled. "We figured if we hung around outside we might know somebody who was working the gig who could let us in. We didn't know anyone but we found a back-door kind of fire escape. Bono went in and kind of opened it and let the rest of us in. That was how we saw their show.

"It was truly amazing to see guys up there with limited ability but able to produce fantastic songs with fantastic energy. Although we had been fooling around at that stage with a few chords, it encouraged us to do whatever was necessary and believe that we could, in our own time, set up and do it ourselves."

On this tour, the Ramones' "I Remember You" is the only cover song U2 will play, Clayton said, although the quartet tends to offer snippets of hits by Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, David Bowie and INXS.

U2 always was a "terrible cover band," the bassist said. "Bono's strength as a pop singer is not interpreting words. When he sings a song, he really needs to get inside it and know where it's coming from."

Life in U2

Whether it's a song about INXS singer Michael Hutchence's suicide or politics in Ireland, Clayton may not be as passionate about the topics as Bono. "There's always a degree of separation because there's not a blood, a generational and a national identity," said Clayton, who was born in Africa 41 years ago to British parents and moved to Ireland when he was 6. "Certainly that allows me to not be quite as emotional as people who have that history. I feel comfortable in Ireland. It's the culture I grew up in. It seems to run very deep for me anyway."

Clayton has spent more than half his life in U2. He remembers making his Twin Cities debut 20 years at First Avenue. And he realizes that most of his contemporaries from that era are no longer performing.

"I was talking to [R.E.M. singer] Michael Stipe a couple weeks back in Atlanta and he was saying, 'There aren't many. There's you guys, R.E.M. and Depeche Mode.' "

For U2's next video -- the song "Elevation" -- the group is doing a tie-in with the new Angelina Jolie movie, "Tomb Raider," based on the Lara Croft video game. Jolie never shot special footage for the U2 video as planned, Clayton said, so clips from the movie and special effects will be used.

The story line features U2 battling its evil twin. "It's a totally new way to see the band," Clayton said.

And it's a performance for which every hard-core U2 fan would have loved a front-row seat -- whether reserved or general admission.