Shooting Craps

U2 takes over the world--and turns it into a commercial

Tony is incoherent with delight. He says he saw U2's Zoo TV tour in '93 and has been a fan ever since. "But I don't want to talk about it," he says, waving his ticket emphatically. "Man, I can't even discuss it, it was so good."

Maria has never seen U2. "And look what a beautiful night it is!" she says with enthusiasm. "It was crappy in L.A., but it's beautiful here, like, because U2 is here!"

Maria and Tony are symptomatic of why, from a practical point of view, Vegas is a good place to begin a tour. It has a finite metropolitan area, a relatively intimate 37,000-seat stadium and hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms. More important, Vegas is a beacon for writers and celebrities, few of whom can resist its vulgar lure. And few have, judging by the rows of press in section 130. Besides an international contingent, there are representatives from Seattle, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Jose, Newark, Los Angeles, USA Today and more.

The fact that tickets remain unsold seems to suggest the public may not consider this event a significant one in the annals of rock, and that the legions of journalists on hand have been caught up in a sort of group hysteria. "They've done a great job of exciting our curiosity about the tour," says Jon Pareles of the New York Times with a shrug when asked why he's covering the show a month before the poorly selling New York dates. "My paper has a national audience; that's why I'm here," he adds.

Other critics around him agree that it's a newsworthy event, but their opinions must be taken with a grain of salt, since going to Vegas is such fun. One critic, from Salt Lake City, says her paper insists she file three stories from here: She has chosen to cover the David Cassidy show at a casino, the evergreen drive-through-wedding-chapel story and this.

Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times, one of U2's biggest cheerleaders, is the most adamant about the magnitude of the event. "This is the most important band in 15 years, and this is an important tour," he says. "I think the amount of press here is just an indication of the stature of the band."

Hilburn has already done three stories on U2 since the release of POP, including one filed from Dublin and one previewing the tour from Vegas the week before, yet the L.A. show, slated for June 21, is nowhere near sold out.

"I think this tour is making us ask ourselves a question regarding rock's future," Hilburn insists. "So few bands these days are selling, which shows a dissatisfaction with conventional rock. So to see a band go out [on the road] with this kind of confidence is great. It asks us, as journalists, to see whether this is just a cycle we're going through or if there is something fundamentally wrong with rock as we know it. Can rock still be a mass phenomenon that means something to people again? And if this doesn't work, what will?"

At 8 p.m., the stadium stands are still not filled because of traffic on the Boulder Highway, the sole route leading to the venue. But the spacious sky is flaming, the air is big and balmy, and just over the stadium walls one can see the desert, harsh and empty. It's a gorgeous night--and a fitting background for opening act Rage Against the Machine and its impassioned litany of songs expressing dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of capitalism and American society.

Rage is currently the acceptable face of rock revolution--exactly what U2 was 13 years ago, when it launched the tour that spawned the Under a Blood Red Sky album and video. But those days are gone forever, and the blood-red sky has gone magenta. In place of the flag, there is now a giant disco ball disguised as a lemon, which will, later in the show, move to the middle of the arena and burst open, revealing the members of U2 dressed in campy Devo outfits. But that's all yet to come.

The band marches onstage at 9:15, escorted through the very heart of the crowd onto a catwalk. It opens with "Mofo"--a song whose chorus goes, "Mother mother, sucking rock 'n' roll/Bubble-poppin' sugar-dropping rock 'n' roll"--followed by "I Will Follow," while behind U2, a giant screen broadcasts giant color images that have been pixelized. Onscreen, the band members look like cartoon figures.

For the next 90 minutes, the screen is the show, hypnotizing the viewer through music that ranges from the incredibly familiar--"(Pride) in the Name of Love," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "Mysterious Ways" and "Daydream Believer," the latter as rendered by the Edge--to the nine new songs from the album POP. Visually, the show is breathtaking. From the graphics inspired by Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring to more abstract images exploding onscreen, there are moments when the images on the video screen are so absorbing and so beautiful they leave you stunned, breathless.

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