Opening Act(s): Smashmouth
Mofo, I Will Follow, Gone, Even Better Than The Real Thing, Last Night On Earth, Until The End Of The World, New Year’s Day, Pride (In The Name Of Love), I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, All I Want Is You, Desire, Staring At The Sun, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Bullet The Blue Sky-America, Please, Where The Streets Have No Name. Encore(s): Discothèque, If You Wear That Velvet Dress, With Or Without You, Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me, Mysterious Ways, One-Wake Up Dead Man.
Maybe PopMart will get this silliness out of band’s system
by Rick Mitchell
U2 had just finished performing one of its most beloved hits, Pride (In the Name of Love), Friday night at the Astrodome when lead vocalist Bono paused to greet the audience.
“Thank you for for sticking by us,” he told the crowd of 29,000. “I know it gets hard following this group. We get restless for new music, new styles, new feelings.
“But if we keep it interesting for us, then it won’t be (fake) … for you.”
It makes sense in theory, and the fans showed support by cheering wildly.
Still, it was hard to ignore all those empty seats in the upper decks, seats that had been packed when the band last played this venue five years ago.
On the busiest shopping day of the year, U2’s PopMart mall was only about half-full, and many of the fans who were there had come in on two-for-one deals and other promotions.
True, not many touring acts could draw nearly 30,000 people, even to a free concert. But the special bond of trust that once made U2 the most popular and respected rock band in the world obviously has been challenged.
Either that, or the music is just not as exciting as it used to be.
After establishing itself in the ’80s as the banner-carrier for rock’s altruistic impulses, U2 has spent the ’90s backing away from its save-the-world image.
The PopMart tour embraces the absurdity of popular culture even while maintaining an ironic distance from it. The band performed on a stage that included a huge video screen, a 100-foot-high golden arch and a lemon-shaped mirror ball.
Bono has cut his hair down to a near-buzz job, and he came out wearing rose-colored shades and a muscle T-shirt; the first of several costume changes. Guitarist The Edge spent part of the show in an all-white outfit that included a cowboy hat and boots, while bassist Adam Clayton wore a military helmet and gas mask.
The garish imagery matches the tone of U2’s latest album, Pop, which combines the techno-dance vibe of European pop with more traditional rock moods and textures. It’s a direction the band has been heading in since 1992’s Achtung Baby.
Of course, U2 is not so restless as to ignore the songs that brought ‘em to the dance in the first place. Although the band took the stage to a throbbing drum-and-bass beat and mixed in the newer material from Pop, much of the 130-minute show played like a greatest hits concert.
Pride (In the Name of Love) was followed by I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, which segued directly into All I Want Is You. The Edge and Bono performed an acoustic duet on Desire, and The Edge delivered a solo rendition of Sunday Bloody Sunday, an early anti-violence anthem he said the band “rediscovered” earlier this year at an inspiring Bosnia concert in Sarajevo.
On these songs, the extravagantly absurdist staging tended to undercut the emotional power of the music. Yes, rock ‘n’ roll has always played to the shallow, trashy and trendy aspects of popular culture.
But it’s also proved itself capable of expressing the most profound and universal realities. As Bono once put it, “All I’ve got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth….”
The problem, as U2 is finding out on this tour, is that it’s difficult to have your truth and eat it, too.
It’s one thing to enjoy an ironic chuckle at the cosmic absurdity of it all when you’re the superstar onstage. It’s another thing whenyou’re the one sitting in the nosebleed seats.
For the first two-thirds of the show, the big metal lemon sat idly at the side of the stage as the lights blinked up and down the golden arches and giant video screen flashed hyperactive images, colors and patterns.
After a strangely hollow version of Where the Streets Have No Name, the band left the stage. An image of a spaceship appeared on the screen, which discharged a scantily clad “alien” of the female persuasion dancing to a techno-beat. There was a loud explosion as the lemon began turning, creating a disco mirror ball effect in the Dome.
The lemon rolled forward over a ramp extending from the front of the stage. The contraption cracked open and — whoa, dude! — the band came strutting out looking exactly like real rock stars. They set up to play on a smaller stage surrounded by the floor seats, just four average guys from Dublin, Ireland, who 20 years ago formed a punk-rock band that became successful beyond their wildest expectations.
But unlike the Rolling Stones, who have used a similar approach on their current Bridges to Babylon tour to re-establish their hard-rocking bar-band credentials, U2 took the opposite tack. The band performed Discotheque, the widely unpopular single from Pop, complete with pulsing electronics and Bono going “whoop, whoop!”
While the mainstream rock audience’s antipathy toward funk and dance music has often contained a reactionary undercurrent, it did seem an odd way for U2 to try to get closer to that audience.
The show ended just before midnight on a sad but tender note, as Bono dedicated One to the memory of Michael Hutchence, the singer with the Australian rock band INXS who died last week in a suspected suicide. This was followed by a fragile version of Wake Up Dead Man, the last song on Pop.
But by this time, the PopMart had sent so many mixed signals that the effect was like attending church under the golden arches with Ronald McDonald: How you can take take anything seriously in that context?
In the end, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t need any of this silliness. U2 used to know this, and deep down, you suspect they still do. Now that they’ve got it out of their collective system, maybe they can get back to the red guitar, three chords and the truth.
© 1997 Houston Chronicle. All rights reserved.