Published Wednesday, September 30, 2009, 4:13 PM

When we last saw our four favorite Dubliners in a stadium setting, they were trying to extricate themselves from the most expensive car crash in rock and roll history.

The time was around 1997. U2’s Popmart tour had almost financially broke the band, and they were touring behind one of the worst received albums of their storied career (“Pop,” as it turns out, was ahead of its time, but that’s another story).

What a difference a dozen years makes. They’ve released four masterpieces since 1997 and rebuilt a strong buzz for their shows by reducing them to stripped-down affairs that fit nicely into smaller hockey arenas and showcased their formidable chops as a live band.

The time was right artistically to air out a decade full of new classics in the open air of a stadium, but was it really a good idea to put on a big and glitzy show in the worst economy in history?

As it turns out, the U2 decision to go big was a brilliant one. They threw a big party to take our minds off of the gloom and doom of our finances.

When you first enter the stadium and gaze in awe at the now famous 10 story 360 Claw stage, as I did last Thursday night at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, you feel like you are about to board a space ship.

The transportation to another world began as soon as the opening act hit the stage. Muse, a Brit-pop band that has been gaining popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, wowed the crowd with a sound from their new album “The Resistance” that combined playful dance beats with distorted, angry guitar riffs and sharp synth accents.

With the strains of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” through the speakers, U2 then declared liftoff with “Breathe” and “Get on Your Boots” from the new album. “Mysterious Ways” slithered out of the speakers next and inspired a deafening sing-along that reached fever pitch as the band leaned into “Beautiful Day.”

“We love Jersey,” gushed Bono in between songs. “We love The Boss, Bon Jovi, Wyclef Jean, and Sopranos.”

He also took time to call out New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the audience, a man he described as “a friend that makes me laugh and joins me in the fight against global poverty in malaria.”

Ever the activist, Bono dedicated “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to the everyday citizens of Iran who have been standing up to their government in an attempt to have their voices heard in the election. That song was an unofficial anthem of the Troubles in Northern Ireland decades ago, and the anger in which Bono delivered the song made the moment a powerful one.

Less effective was the dedication of “Walk On” to Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has long been under house arrest in Myanmar. Dozens of young volunteers paraded onstage with her photograph, but everyone onstage was so busy giggling and texting their friends that the sentiment was lost.

For anyone unsure of the quality of the songs from U2 latest release “No Line on the Horizon,” they need to be heard in the open air to appreciate their majestic quality.

The thunderous chorus of the newest singles “Magnificent” and “Get on Your Boots” makes total sense when placed near “Ulraviolet.”

The band’s set was full of the eclectic snippets that have become a live trademark. They usher in each song with bits of melodies from artists they admire as they smooth out any rough transitions in the set.

On Thursday night, they injected the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” into a fun dance mix of the new song “I’ll Go Crazy.” “Blackbird” flew into “Beautiful Day,” and an a capella read of “Stand By Me” became another magic moment that found the crowd in communion with the band. It was fitting that the claw stage had a cathedral-like spire at the top for a moment like this.

The blogging on this tour has made for an interesting read. Many long time fans have felt betrayed by the band’s decision to play mostly new songs.

“Not a single song played from ‘Boy’ or ‘October,’ and only one from ‘War,’ and that's just plain dumb,” griped my friend and Q104.3 New York disc jockey Ian O’Malley in a Facebook post.

“No ‘I Will Follow,’ ‘New Year’s Day,’ ‘Gloria.’ Like I expected, the new stuff tanked. The only thing that saved the previous three tunes was the lights and visuals, or in many cases from what I saw from people making a mad dash to the Miller beer guy hawking suds.”

There are only a handful of bands like the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney big enough to play a venue this large in the first place. Their set lists are light on new songs in favor of tunes that bring you back to the glory days of decades past.

U2’s set was remarkable in that the biggest highlights of the evening came from songs created in this decade, proving their continued relevance. “Vertigo,” “Elevation,” and “City of Blinding Lights,” when played in succession, proved to be powerful masterpieces that prove the band’s relevance for any naysayers.

Sure, there’s always that one moldy oldie that would have delighted you, but you have to applaud a band that has “walked on” into this millennium and left their classic rock contemporaries behind.

The band was in a celebratory mood this week. They conveyed warm 60th birthday wishes to old friend Bruce Springsteen by dropping “She’s the One” into the musical bed of “Desire,” and they acknowledged the crowd of 84,472 for setting an attendance record at Giants Stadium.

Speaking from the stage at the end of the night, Bono said, "News just in. We've broken every record for attendance in this stadium -- including the Pope. Sorry Bruce -- we know it’s your birthday and all.”

Before adding later, "I know they're knocking this place down...we probably won't be here again before the wrecking ball but it was a magic place for us as well as the Giants."

It was a beautiful day for U2 fans, one that makes a stadium safe for both the band and its fans once again.

Here was the set list from the second night at Giants Stadium: Breathe/Get on Your Boots/Mysterious Ways/Beautiful Day/No Line on the Horizon/ Magnificent/Elevation/I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For/Unknown Caller/Until the End of the World/Stay/Unforgettable Fire/City of Blinding Lights/Vertigo/I'll Go Crazy – Remix/Sunday Bloody Sunday/MLK/Walk On/One/Where the Streets Have No Name/Ultraviolet/With or Without You/Moment of Surrender.