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"I'm proud of what we achieved in stadiums, but this record is not about that. There's no artifice." — Larry, on All That You Can't Leave Behind



U2''S SEARCH FOR THE REAL THING

- April 14, 1992

by Robert Hilburn

U2's Bono Hewson as Elvis Presley -- hip shakin', gold lame suit and all?

When Bono came out for the encore parodying Elvis so broadly that he was admiring himself in a mirror as he walked, it was amusing, but also a touch obvious.

What made the portrayal work in the context of the Irish rock band's passionate and liberating performance Sunday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena was that it wasn't just a cheap shot at an easy target.

Bono, who has recorded with U2 in the Memphis studio where Presley did much of his greatest work, admires the music of the early Presley as much as he cringes at the excesses and vanities that eventually destroyed him.

Yet history has shown that those same intoxicating forces haunt almost every rock hero in various degrees -- and U2 is no exception. There is clearly part of Bono that loves the adoration and part of him that recognizes how dangerous it can be to your art and personal life.

It's the struggle between these and other conflicting forces that was both the theme of Sunday's nearly two-hour set and much of U2's music during the last decade: the struggle between one's best and worst impulses . . . strongest ideals and scariest temptations.

The drama of this tour -- which continues Wednesday at the San Diego Sports Arena -- is that it moves, at least outwardly, the focus of the band's approach from the ideals to the temptations.

Until now, U2 has been the band on the high road -- a group whose most affecting songs were frequently spiritually tinged anthems about lofty aspirations.

This musical purity was also stressed in the no-nonsense stage shows. You could always find traces of dangerous compulsion and moral weakness in the songs, but the tone of the concerts was uplifting -- good consistently triumphing over evil.

Not so this time.

U2 has put together a flashy, high-tech show that is a wicked satire on the video-age "entertainment" emphasis in rock.

Even before the band arrived, the stage set signaled the change: Six brightly painted East German cars were hanging perilously from cables, echoing some of the modern-age anxiety outlined in the group's latest album, "Achtung Baby," which was largely recorded in Berlin.

The stage also was lined with a dozen video monitors, armed with all sorts of images and messages that were unleashed as soon as the band began playing.

Parts of the production concept have been seen before in such acts as R.E.M., Talking Heads and Neil Young, but no one else in mainstream rock has done it so extensively.

Bono was dressed at the start in the most self-conscious rock star attire imaginable: a black leather jacket and pants. To add to the self-absorption, his hair was slicked back in the trendy style of the day and he wore dark glasses.

As soon as guitarist Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen began playing the first of eight straight songs from the new album, there was a swirl of intensity on stage.

So many images flashed across the various monitors during the second song, "The Fly," that you felt engulfed in the sensory overload of today's modern communications.

The barrage of words and images ranged, purposefully, from provocative to silly. Sample phrases: "Rock and Roll Is Entertainment . . . Over 40 Billion Served."

The third song, "The Real Thing," followed up on the idea of mainstream rock as low-grade entertainment, void of ideas and passion. The song is a look at how trimmings -- or fantasies -- can be so addictive that they become more important than the actual experiences.

In rock's case, it's often the stereotypes of rebellion or allegiance to whatever trend is popular at the moment that become more important than the originality and heart found in the best music.

Later Sunday, U2 showed that all the elaborate trimmings aren't important as the band stepped to a second, bare stage in the middle of the arena for a semi-acoustic version of the poignant "Angel of Harlem."

The move stressed that music is the real thing and the point wasn't lost on the audience. Although the song isn't one of the band's best or most popular numbers, it received one of the strongest responses of the night.

After that, the quartet -- playing with unerring intensity throughout -- sometimes employed special effects, often quite appealingly. But the emphasis was on the music. The most moving sequence involved the evening's two darkest numbers: "Bad," a song about addiction in various forms, and "Running to Stand Still," which deals with fatal consequences.

The mood was lifted by the cleansing "Where the Streets Have No Name," which was accompanied on the monitors by footage from the band's late-'80s "The Joshua Tree" period. At one point, Bono, in Fellini-like fashion, looked at one monitor and waved at the younger, more innocent image of the band.

The concert was a brilliant, but troublesome journey that didn't end with easy answers.

It would have been more reassuring for U2 fans if Bono had come out at the end in his normal attire and confirm that the band is still making the right choices -- and that he, for instance, isn't enjoying this rock-star adoration too much.

Instead, the concert ended in the semi-darkness with a prayerlike song, "Love Is Blindness," about venturing into the unknown. A happy ending for the show might have been better than the real thing from a fan's perspective, but the uncertainty of tomorrow is the real thing.

Sunday's concert also featured a stirring 45-minute set by the Pixies, one of the best bands to rise through the college/alternative ranks and one that is as intent as U2 in subverting the numbing expectations of mainstream rock.

Ê

© LA Times, 1992. All rights reserved.

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