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"They say, 'Oh, you can't get these [HIV treatment] drugs to the farthest reaches of Africa.' Yet we can get cold fizzy drinks there. You know, let's talk to Coca-Cola about using their infrastructure and their refrigerated trucks." — Bono

U2 Pushes the Limits of Rock Shows

- April 20, 1992

by Joel Selvin

Staking new high ground in the rock concert field, U2 unleashed an unprecedented, unremitting, nearly two-hour barrage of sound, lights and action Saturday on the capacity crowd at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.

From the moment lead vocalist Bono stalked onstage in black leather and shades and the other three band members struck poses in pools of light, U2 made it clear that this concert would be like none the audience had ever seen.

Beneath several automobiles suspended from the lighting trusses, the band drove into ''Zoo Station,'' the leadoff track from ''Achtung Baby,'' U2's current album that formed the basis of the 21-song extravaganza. Drummer Larry Mullen dropped a fistful of clear, resonant bombs into the hall behind Bono's soaring vocal, and the rest of the band crashed on top, as the concert was launched with the rumbling force of Cape Canaveral.


A bank of four DiamondVision screens stood at the rear of a stage piled with another dozen-and-a-half regulation-size TV monitors, offering Greek chorus accompaniment to the songs, sometimes carrying the same images, sometimes not. A giant video screen showing onstage close-ups hung above center stage between loudspeakers.

A ramp extended a third of the way across the arena floor, ending in a small stage. A dancer materialized on the auxiliary platform during ''Mysterious Ways,'' and the entire band, in an acoustic configuration, convened on this tiny island in the sea of fans to sing ''Angel of Harlem'' like street buskers. Then they made a quick segue to the Abba hit ''Dancing Queen,'' which Bono sent out to Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist of Queen, who died of AIDS last November.

Portions of the Saturday concert were transmitted by satellite to producers of a worldwide telecast in Mercury's honor taking place today in England.

From the moment he stepped onstage, wrenching himself into a curl on the floor, Bono poured passion in his performance, pushing himself hard during the early portions of the concert but striding tall and confident by the end, poised like a victorious hunter. The customarily austere Bono even indulged in some slight stage humor, returning for 20 minutes of encores in gold lame suit and cowboy hat.

With the first eight songs -- and much of the concert's remainder -- drawn from ''Achtung Baby,'' U2 stayed in the band's present tense. By saving material from the massive 1987 breakthrough, ''The Joshua Tree,'' for the concert's final portion, U2 also reserved the trademark sound of tension- building crescendos for the climactic passages.

But no matter how deliberately U2 dissembled the group's signature in ''Achtung Baby,'' the force of the musical personalities of guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Mullen so thoroughly stamped whatever they played, the handwriting remained intact. The Edge, filtering his considerable skills through a mind-boggling array of signal processing and electronic effects, summoned a virtual orchestra at his command, punching small cadenzas in the sweeping sound, with bottleneck playing at certain points, or surging into a one-man sonic ocean as in the interlude that built so skillfully to ''Where the Streets Have No Name.''


So regardless of the special effects and staging wizardry the band dumped on top of themselves, the music was never submerged. The often-surrealistic effects always served the songs, not the other way around. Interspersing the video and audio images of Martin Luther King, for instance, in ''Pride (In the Name of Love)'' gave a powerful boost to the song's already heroic swath.

What Bono was saying with his rock- star outfits that nearly parodied the very elitism he always assiduously sought to avoid remains to be seen. Obviously, on ''Achtung Baby'' the quartet engaged in deliberate deconstruction, rejecting the sculpted song structure of U2 past. Bono seemed to take that one step beyond, going so far as to toe the line of parody, then pulling back as he reached every crucial juncture.

Even if the ''Achtung Baby'' songs lack the immediacy and panoramic sweep of U2 standards, the band put enough panache and production into their performance that the numbers held their own in the context. While the band may not be remembered for pieces like ''One,'' ''Until the End of the World'' or even ''Love Is Blindness,'' the number that U2 chose to end the concert, this magnificent multimedia production will serve as a pinnacle in rock's onstage history for sometime to come.

And if you missed the performance, don't worry. From the number of times Bono kept saying, ''We'll see you again real soon,'' a summer tour of stadiums would seem inevitable.

San Francisco Chronicle, 1992. All rights reserved.

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