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"When I'm singing songs, I have to live in them to make them connect with people, I can't just . . . sing it, you know." — Bono

Finally, U2 finds what it''s looking for

- June 23, 1997

by Ben Wener

Call them geniuses. Call them sellouts. Greedy. Generous. Determined. Laughable. Visionary.

U2 can be called all of those things these days and it wouldn't be too wide of the truth. The band can't, however, be called immune to criticism.

Someone in the band's camp was taking detailed notes that night a few months back in Las Vegas when U2 premiered its now-often-maligned PopMart mega-tour. Someone saw instantly that there were problems.

Whether that someone happened to be a member of U2 really doesn't matter. What does is that the band has learned from its mistakes, turning its spectacle-heavy PopMart from glossy, overhyped discount shopping into a glossy, overhyped best buy.

"This is where we spent all the cash you gave us," lead singer Bono said, apologizing slightly for the show's steep ($52.50) ticket price before a nearly ironic version of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." "This is our church, built out of bits and pieces of America."

But taking from Americans -- even coolly apathetic Los Angelenos -- means something must be given back. And it had sure better be top quality.

Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, it was. Part of that well-crafted return came from PopMart's jaw-dropping effects, especially the use of an enormous 150-foot-plus video screen, which, even though it dwarfs the band, and its visuals often distract from the action, remains a technological wonder.

But that flash was in place from the tour's start. What was missing initially was the key element -- a strong, sturdy working-for-a-living band. In Vegas, U2 played like a bunch of superstars verging on panic. Saturday night, it played like one of the last great bands left in rock.

Two months of touring has brought a relaxed assuredness back to U2's performances. It also has allowed the group to work out some kinks. "If You Wear That Velvet Dress," for instance, once buried by crowd noise in its lullaby state, has been transformed into a psychedelia-tinged groove, while "Staring at the Sun" was wisely stripped to a marvelous acoustic rendition.

The band's recent material -- particularly a touched-up "Last Night on Earth" and the powerful "Please" -- now resonates with deep-felt emotion. And the satirical set piece of "Miami" and "Bullet the Blue Sky," with Bono playing his jaded tourist with far less menace in his stare, made much more sense.

Best of all, a greatly needed playfulness seemed to have returned to U2, prompting an unexpected turn by Davy Jones of the Monkees (during the Edge's midset karaoke non sequitur) as well as impromptu-sounding versions of "All I Want Is You" and the classic "Unchained Melody."

That latter song's final refrain ("I need your love / God speed your love to me") neatly tied into a telling version of "With or Without You," which here read not as an aching plea for understanding but as a troubled paean to stardom -- as if to suggest that U2 knows it can be rock's unifying force without the trappings of fame, but that the attention is too crucial to its psyche to ignore.

Maybe that adulation is what's required to move ahead. Bono remarked Saturday night that the band had grown scared of "being swallowed by the big corporate monster. So we decided to eat the monster before the monster could eat us."

But has the band digested that beast completely? Not exactly. There's a certain degree of cannibalism at play, after all. But despite the glitz and hyperbole, integrity is still the operative word with U2. And Saturday night, at least, the attempt at preserving it was sincere.

© 1997. Orange County Register.

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