There was a telling moment toward the end of U2's set at RFK Stadium on Monday night. After dedicating "Please" to Native American activist Leonard Peltier, the band proceeded to bend the song slowly out of shape, stretching the music like Silly Putty as it moved from a dub-inflected bass groove to what could best be described as rock-oriented ambient.
Then, as Bono rallied through the final, pleading verse, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. waded in with a distinctly martial cadence. As the band rallied around him, that beat sounded more and more like the opening to "Sunday, Bloody Sunday." Anticipating a segue, the crowd rose to its feet -- only to find that Bono and the boys were just playing around with the arrangement. Naturally, the fans cheered, anyway. But their disappointment was palpable.
That pretty much summed the "Popmart" tour experience. Even though U2's current concert extravaganza was as solid a show as can be found on the road today, it was neither the all-embracing spectacle the band promised nor the faith-affirming experience for which fans pray. Instead, it was mainly a picture of a band in transition -- and an awkward transition at that.
As recent interviews have made plain, the members of U2 believe that dance music -- specifically the cocktail of techno, house, ambient and dub the music press has been calling "electronica" -- is the future of rock and roll. And Popmart found the foursome putting its money where its mouth is -- literally.
From the booming bass of the club music spun by a DJ before the show to the beat-augmented re-arrangements of recent songs, U2 put a definite dance-music spin on the show. Not only were anthemic rockers from the "Joshua Tree" era few and far between, but it sometimes seemed as if the band had difficulty getting into its old groove.
Take the opening sequence, for example. The members of U2 were led into the stadium like prizefighters, trotting through the crowd in a knot of bodyguards while M's "Pop Muzik" blared on the P.A. From there, the band leapt immediately into "Mofo," attacking its brittle, techno-edged arrangement with gusto. Granted, the sound was a bit muddy, often losing the vocals beneath the bone-shaking rumble of bass and drums, but there was no denying the band's energy.
When the four of them tried to shift gears and move into "I Will Follow," however, the mighty U2 machine stalled out. All the elements were there -- the Edge's plangent guitar chords, Adam Clayton's insistently throbbing bass, Mullen's roiling drums -- but the chemistry that made them work wasn't. Try as they might, they just couldn't find the pocket and were unable to make those notes seem as urgent as they once were.
That may have been the most glaring example of the band's inability to hold on to its past, but it was hardly the only one. Although "Pride" found the band stepping easily into its familiar swagger, a combination of bad acoustics (including persistent slapback) and mismanaged sound (somehow, the Edge's guitar break got lost in the mix) kept the song from catching fire.
And the band didn't even try to offer "Bullet the Blue Sky" in its original glory, opting instead for a throbbing, bass-heavy arrangement that was almost like a live club remix.
Of course, there was enough visual dazzle packed into the set that few fans minded the changes. "Bullet the Blue Sky," for instance, came with a "Cathedral of Light" display that would have done Albert Speer proud, while "Even Better Than the Real Thing" was backed by a Warhol-ish display of animated images every bit as engrossing as the performance.
It was hard, though, not to wonder if U2 had put so much emphasis on the visual that it somehow had shortchanged the music. That certainly seemed the case with the sound system, which often as not turned the music into mud and left half of Bono's contributions unintelligible. And frankly, the spectacle of seeing the band emerge for the encore from a giant, lemon-shaped disco ball was far more impressive than hearing it do "Discotheque."
To its credit, there were times when U2 made its vision of a brave new rock world totally convincing. "Miami," for instance, found the band smoldering like an overloaded circuit, while "Staring at the Sun" was even more hypnotic than the studio version. Nor were all the oldies disappointing; "With or Without You," in fact, was just about perfect.
No, the problem was that U2 was unable to handle either side of its sound consistently. And until the band figures out a way to reconcile that disparity, the outlook for its Popmart isn't particularly bright.
Pub Date: 5/28/97