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"We lived through [Adam] vicariously for a few years. I was hoping that he'd do something like buy a yacht and we could all hang out on it. The rest of us were too embarrassed." — Bono, on the band's "religious" years in the '80s

U2''s edge shines through playful kitsch

- May 16, 1997

by Bill Ellis

MEMPHIS -- Shots rang out in a Memphis sky for U2's dazzling and energetic "PopMart" concert Wednesday night at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

The show, which played to a less-than-full crowd of 28,222, didn't finish until nearly midnight, with U2 singer Bono bathed in the warm red light of a towering Valentine heart as he sang the Elvis Presley number Can't Help Falling in Love, a tune the band performed on videotape for the 1994 Presley tribute at The Pyramid.

U2's kitschy stage design, filled with pop culture icons, didn't look like much, pre-show. In stark daylight, the set was clumsy and obvious. A huge yellow arch mimicked McDonald's golden logo; banks of orange speakers were stacked into the shape of a fast-food bucket.

A green pimiento-stuffed olive was mounted atop a massive toothpick, itself positioned beside a lunar-sized lemon. All that was missing was a gigantic lava lamp.

Liberty Bowl wasn't in the lounging mood, however.

In what seemed an odd double bill - thrash vs. posh - rap-metal group Rage Against the Machine was U2's chosen opener. Their music may have been about as different as hand grenades and hand lotion, but the bands' politics - one using anger, the other irony - went hand in hand after all. Mary Morello, mother of Rage guitarist Tom Morello, introduced the Grammy-winning band, imploring more freedom of expression in the music industry.

Freedom of the groove was more like it. Morello proved there's yet a new chapter being written in the Led Zeppelin book of heavy metal riffs. When he wasn't pounding away in military precision, Morello got some of the most innovative sounds out of six strings since Jimi Hendrix.

His solo in Bulls on Parade suggested in stream-of-higher-consciousness order: the static signal on a walkie-talkie, machine gun fire and the record scratching of rap turntables.

It was the perfect foil for frontman Zach de la Rocha, who jumped around as if dodging land mines.

His rap delivery, a cross between Noam Chomsky and the Beastie Boys, created a mosh pit for the mind.

On Killing in the Name of, those that burn crosses became "the same that burn churches." And in one particularly fierce rocker, de la Rocha ended by quoting the lyrics to The Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen's folk encapsulation of The Grapes of Wrath.

For an opening act, Rage lived up to its powerful name and nearly squeezed U2's over-sized lemon dry.

A deejay spun records on stage between bands, reflecting U2's recent fascination with dance culture.

Despite the hype surrounding modern disco styles such as techno and jungle, electronica is still a faceless music, which is probably why the crowd, busy spiking a large beach ball back and forth, hardly noticed the deejay's presence.

Those who thought that U2 would only play music from their new, dance-inspired album, "Pop" (a washout on the charts) were happily mistaken. The four-piece band - Bono, guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. - focused instead on a two-hour-plus overview of its biggest hits: pop everyone could relate to.

Looking like a new age guru in yellow goggles and a cropped head of hair, Bono belted U2's 1980 single I Will Follow.

A few songs later, he announced the song U2 wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Pride (In the Name of Love), saying, "This is the one U.S. city where I feel I don't have to talk about Martin Luther King Day."

By song's end, the audience was singing and Bono was listening.

The activist singer was more into having fun with pop idols than flag waving, however.

At the beginning of the concert, he was led through the audience, shrouded in a hooded jacket throwing shadow punches a la Rocky (Bono's idea of pumping up was wearing a muscleman shirt underneath).

He also imitated the Elvis hip swivel and Michael Jackson's Billie Jean moves.

And darn if that stage didn't come alive after all. Once it got dark, the larger-than-life set lit up like a Tokyo shopping district at night.

A tall screened backdrop ran endless, colorful images ranging from a monkey-to-man evolutionary chain and rave dancers to fighter plane animation styled after Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring's distinctive stick people.

During Bullet the Blue Sky, 14 huge spotlights shot straight up bulleting the black sky. When the band encored, they emerged from the lemon, which had shed its yellow skin and became a twirling mirror ball. Studio 54? Memphis had Stadium 54.

In the night's funniest bit, The Edge - accompanied by a karaoke soundtrack - sang the lyrics to Daydream Believer, which were broadcast in big yellow words on the screen.

In the end, stage props and clowning around played second fiddle to the night's raison d'etre: U2 the rock band.

Even when they played the song Discotheque, no one mistook U2 for dancing fools - The Edge's edgy guitar work saw to that.

At times, it was even hard mistaking U2 for an arena act. Bono's voice sounded hoarse all night, apparently ravaged already from the tour. When he entered way off key on U2's new single Staring at the Sun, Bono stopped the song, grabbed an acoustic guitar, found the right pitch, and began again.

"It's no Broadway show," he said. "We can stop if we want." It was the night's most awkward moment and yet its most honest.

Even in U2's latest "pop" incarnation, the 20-year-old group is still a few steps down on the evolutionary ladder and all the better for it.

© 1997. The Commercial Appeal.

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