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U2 last night rekindled the unforgettable fire it ignited more than 20 years ago writes Dan Aquuilante of NYPOST.COM

Rather than lumbering off into oblivion like so many other aging bands,U2 last night rekindled the unforgettable fire it ignited more than 20 years ago.

Midway through the Madison Square Garden show, U2's lead singer, Bono, reminisced about coming to New York City.

"It was 21 years ago," he said. "It was the Mud Club, The Ritz - there were times when there was just 11 people in the audience.

"Still, we played like our lives depended on it. That's how we're going to play tonight."

He lived up to his word. At the opening night of a two-show gig, the Irish quartet was terrific.

Instead of using inflatables, fireworks and the other doo-dads that seem to be essential to the gymnastics of music these days, the band won the hearts and minds of 19,000 fans the old-fashioned way - with music.

Old tunes, such as "I Will Follow," "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" and new songs off last year's disc were the core of the show.

Starting with the present and exploring the evolution of the band as the evening progressed, Bono and the boys kick-started the event with "Elevation," the number from which the tour derives its name.

Playing off of the huge anticipation of this concert, U2 established major drama by entering the stage under full bright house lights one man at a time. The applause thundered as bassist Adam Clayton entered first, followed by drummer Larry Mullen, then guitarist The Edge - and, finally, U2 voice Bono.

Together, they hammered out "Elevation," one of the best from the new U2 album. The song had a sense of urgency that had audience members on their feet from the start, and was U2's signature for the night.

Bono bellowed, The Edge struck the strings of his guitar as if he were displeased, and the Clayton/Mullen beat-machine was like clockwork.

And that was just the first song of the 2-hour performance. Last night wasn't U2's best show ever, but it was the band's top New York concert in a decade.

The distance between past and present was bridged nicely with studio-perfect renditions of some best-known, best-loved tunes, including "Where the Streets Have No Name," "With or Without You," "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and the new soulful "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of."

One of the night's most interesting treatments was the stripped-down-to-its-frame ode to the Big Apple, simply called "New York."

Bono's voice was a little squashed by the instrumental backup, but as the band worked toward the encore, that problem was cleaned up nicely. His voice was very scratchy when he spoke, but the problem wasn't evident when he sang

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