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You'll never see the band emerge from the dressing room until at least half an hour after each show, and it's not because they're taking showers. [E]very night the five of us sit down and deconstruct the show. -- Paul McGuinness

In God''s Playground

- August 13, 1997

by Nathaniel Espino

The Irish uber-band U2 played its first-ever concert in Poland Aug. 12, bringing the Pop-Mart tour extravaganza to Warsaw's S3uewiec racetrack. Once they made it onto the field, the estimated 70,000 fans (many of whom were able to enter without tickets) were treated to a solid show, but abysmal planning for the audience's safety and comfort marred the event.

Though the gates were scheduled to open at 2 p.m., the first fans were not allowed in until more than half an hour later, when the line was nearly 1 km long, according to the Gazeta Wyborcza daily. The main entrance was no more than 25 m wide. The organizers decided to bring VIPs in through the racetrack's main access road and cut a hole in the wall on Pu3awska Street for hoi polloi; apparently, no one gave a lot of thought to how wide the hole should be, or how many holes should be made. On Aug. 19, Gazeta Wyborcza reported that 200 people received medical treatment; the newspaper continues to point the finger of blame in all directions.

The debacle left thousands of people waiting on the sidewalk, stranded in a miasma of plastic bottles, soda cans, U2 promotional leaflets and other detritus. Many chose to hop over the barriers running parallel to the line, incurring the just wrath of the people they cut off. Once in line, fans sweated and seethed their way through a series of gates before making it onto the field.

The show finally got underway about 9 p.m., 40 minutes after police took down the barriers on Pu3awska Street and long after security had stopped checking tickets and making all but the most cursory searches of bags. In keeping with the "Pop" theme, the stage was decorated with a single golden arch and backed by a 56x15-m screen. The screen was often occupied by cryptic images, in of ing Warhol-esque graphics (there's the "Pop" again), but when it showed the performers it was even better than the real thing for the people standing at the back.

Perhaps the greatest crowd pleasers were the big-screen images of Lech Walsa and scenes from the Solidarity protests of the early 1980s, projected during the song "New Year's Day." Bono introduced the tune by saying, "This is your song," and the crowd responded enthusiastically. It's a funny thing about Walsa these days: Only a handful of people would show up to see him alone, but let Aleksander Kwaniewski introduce him on Zamkowy Square during a Bill Clinton visit, or let U2 project him larger than life at a concert, and he draws ecstatic applause.

Ultimately, what you thought of the concert depended on how you view U2's post-Joshua Tree transformation. These days, it's hard to believe that this packaged, polished, technology-laden foursome could ever have been described, as in the liner notes for their War album, as having a "knife-edged, energetic, sometimes careening sound." Their new stuff is almost as good lyrically, but it's more suited to a club with a great lighting rig and fog machine-not exactly the sort of ringing-guitar sort of thing you want to hear in an open field.

The group's megastar posturing is also wide open to interpretation. Die-hard admirers like to think the band is poking large-scale fun at the idea of rock-idol status, while cynics think they've started believing their own press.

You wouldn't catch the U2 of the mid-1980s wearing gas masks or climbing out of a giant silver lemon, and their fans from those halcyon days would have been horrified to hear Bono muffing the words to "Where the Streets Have No Name." Yet all of that happened here in Warsaw. Say what you will about this band, they're constantly able to re-invent themselves to keep up with the zeitgeist. Particularly mordant observers may even think their early sincerity was a marketing ploy to capture an audience looking for sincere rock stars.

U2 finished up with a three-song encore, closing the evening with the lyrical "One"-which exactly described the number of exits. The crowd lined up again, left hanging on as the lights went down. Perhaps thinking they would have to wait until the end of the world (or at least until October), the fans made their way back to the waiting buses thoughtfully provided by the City Transportation Board; more often than not, they were running to stand still.

1997, Warsaw Voice. All rights reserved.

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