What happens when the biggest band in the world hits the biggest city in America? Hopefully, not a lot that will be different when the band comes to Minneapolis this fall.

At the tail end of the first leg of its U.S. tour, U2's Madison Square Garden concert last weekend felt like a grandiose gesture toward the city that inspired some of the lyrics and most of the hoopla behind its latest album. But then, what U2 concert doesn't feel like a grandiose gesture?

By the time Bono and the boys make it to Target Center on Sept. 23, near the start of their second U.S. leg, appreciation for the new CD "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" will likely have dwindled to somewhere between "All That You Can't Leave Behind" and "Zooropa" in the hierarchy of U2 albums. At the Garden, the band made a convincing pitch for "Bomb's" greatness, but it did a whole lot more, too.

Like going way, way back. After Bono made a nod to the site of the band's 1980 New York debut, the long-shuttered Mudd Club, the quartet revisited its lesser-known early nuggets "The Electric Co." and "An Cat Dubh/Into the Heart," songs it hasn't played since Bono was still sporting a mullet and the Edge still had hair. Turns out, they're decent songs, but nothing we haven't missed.

A U2 trademark that many fans and critics have missed: The unforgettable political fire of their `80s albums and concerts is back on this tour, after being sidelined through most of the `90s. Granted, any U2 show will have Bono preaching about something going on the world that the media should be covering instead of runaway brides. But this was a night of many directives, on everything from world poverty (before the song "One") to science vs. religion ("Miracle Drug") to racial and religious tolerance ("Sunday Bloody Sunday").

At least in New York, the gospel according to Bono wasn't just being tossed at fans who'd rather hear him sing "Desire." The hole where the Twin Towers used to be was just a subway ride away, and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the president's daughters were among the attendees (not that the Bush twins also wouldn't rather hear him sing "Desire," which he didn't do, by the way).

Even while recapturing the political verve of U2's `80s work, this tour also retains the pizazz and enormity of the band's `90s concerts. There are no giant golden arches or disco balls, as on the notorious (if memorable) "PopMart" outing of 1998, but "Vertigo 2005" has plenty of dazzling eye candy. The setup included curtains of stringed lights and a circular, layered stage connected to a giant, oval-shaped runway. The runway is an arena-rock gimmick that U2 uses better than any other band. Even the usually dormant bassist Adam Clayton strolled out to the center of the Garden at one point.

The design was glitzy enough for even the showy "Zoo Station" to make a welcome return, but it especially turned "Vertigo" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" into sheer spectacles. Does U2 need to go to such lengths to remain a captivating arena-rock band? No, but it doesn't hurt anything, aside from their pleas to end world poverty (one less lighting rig might feed Darfur refugees for five years, or for however long that genocide might take to start making headlines).

At this point in its career - which is 25 years old now, as marked by the band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in March - U2 has a full range of hits to play. Its grab-bag of songs rivals the Rolling Stones' or Paul McCartney's, who will compete for Twin Cities ticket-buyers this fall. U2 set lists now include not just early gems and heyday classics, but standards from more recent albums, which neither the Stones nor Sir Paul can claim. Of the latter, "Beautiful Day" proved invaluable, "Fly" proved unnecessary, "Stuck in a Moment" was sorely missed and "Staring at the Sun" wasn't.

Actually, U2 bravely avoided a predictable hits show. Sure, it did play "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "One" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday," but skipped "New Year's Day," "Bad" and everything from "Rattle and Hum." Instead of the "Joshua Tree" standards "With or Without You" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," it picked one of that album's lesser-known gems, "Running to Stand Still."

The omission of one beloved oldie, "40" - which has ended most of the "Vertigo" shows - especially seemed to stick with the New York fans as they started filing out of the Garden. An impromptu version of the song was started, with choruses of "How long to sing this song?" filling the hallways and tunnels out onto the streets. It sounded better than it ever could have on stage, and made the biggest band in the world seem bigger than ever.


Here are the moments that Bono lovers and haters would have most relished during the May 21 concert at Madison Square Garden:

1. Singing "Hallelujah" over and over as the video screens listed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

2. Wearing a bandana and beating a tom-tom drum, a la taiko drummers, during "Love and Peace or Else." Then, the bandana became a blindfold for "Bullet the Blue Sky."

3. Interspersing John F. Kennedy and Neil Armstrong's moon-landing speeches with his pet cause of late, aiding the poorest countries. "We're asking President Bush to put mankind back on earth [and] put an end to world poverty," he said. "For this generation, that could be our moon-landing."