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Pop Goes U2

U2
All photos by George Sakkestad.

U2 embraces the beast of commercialism with ironic glee at Oakland Coliseum show

Review by Todd S. Inoue

Nipped and chomped apart by critical pundits who point to lagging ticket and album sales as proof of U2's vulnerability, the enormous Popmart Tour--in support of the new album Pop--lumbered into the Oakland Coliseum last Wednesday (June 18, the first of a two-day stand). Combining technology with solid renditions of their hits, the Irish band got its much-needed second wind with a show that was as bombastic, showy, intimate, strange and self-indulgent as promised.

U2 had an unfair advantage: the stage. It was a multimedia beast with a deluxe arch, a huge lemon, a catwalk stretching to the pitcher's mound and a stuffed olive with flashing pimento impaled on a sky-high swizzle stick.

The mess was engulfed by a mumbo-Jumbotron behind the band that stretched the length of the stage and then some. Sixty orange speakers dangled just under the arch's apex. It was Spinal Tap meets the digital age; U2 could have played a CD all night and nobody would have complained.

U2

The contingent rolling into the Coliseum around 7:45 got to see an opening set by pop-throne heir Oasis. I would be totally convinced that the hype surrounding Oasis held merit if only the band's live performance was better--"better" meaning more animated.

The band sounded great. Guitarists Paul Arthurs and Noel Gallagher created crushing symphonies of sound--unfortunately, the songs were strung together by rather one-dimensional vocalist Liam Gallagher. The group mixed tracks from Definitely Maybe ("Live Forever," "Supersonic"), What's the Story (Morning Glory) ("Roll With It," "Cast No Shadow," "Some Might Say," "Wonderwall," "Don't Look Back in Anger," a breathtaking "Champagne Supernova") and two new songs. Liam, however, was lower than low-key, shaking a tambourine, sitting on a monitor glaring nonchalantly into the audience.

The rest of the band, looking more like lager louts than self-proclaimed rock saviors, concentrated on the music. After seeing Oasis and archrival Blur within a week, I'll say this: In a soccer match, Blur would run circles around Oasis, but Oasis would have more red cards.

The moon was full when influential house DJ (and Pop co-producer) Howie B. spun a techno version of M's "Pop Muzak." The lights went down, and U2--drummer Larry Mullen Jr., bassist Adam Clayton, guitarist the Edge and vocalist Bono--strolled through the audience and up the catwalk in mutated Village People outfits. Reaching the stage, the boys strapped on their instruments and played a polyrhythmic "Mofo." The screen came alive with flash and plunder, cutting between assaultive shots.

U2

Trademark Sermon

A distempered "I Will Follow" segued into "Even Better Than the Real Thing" with Bono stripping off his black jacket to reveal a tight body shirt painted with fake pectorals. "Gone" was accentuated by Bono on guitar, Edge going off on backup vocals and the screen blasting Warholian patterns.

An upbeat "Pride (In the Name of Love") followed before Bono broke into a trademark sermon: "Thanks for following us around for the years. You turned us into a big band. But then we got scared. We saw this big corporate monster. Our plan was to eat the monster before it ate us." A stunning version of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" testified for the band. Bono added an a capella rendition of Ben E. King's "Stand by Me."

"Last Night on Earth" and "If God Will Send His Angels" slowed things down, until Edge got his wake-up call. He turned "Until the End of the World" into a chiming, spiraling frenzy that had Bono egging him on. Pop-art graphics from Roy Lichtenstein dazzled behind them. "Bullet the Blue Sky" was another guitar-nerd's wet dream, with Edge replicating the take-off sounds of jets at nearby Oakland International Airport.

While "Staring at the Sun" was somber, a cover of the Monkees' "Daydream Believer"--with cheesy karaoke screen running lyrics on the telly--was a hoot. Edge couldn't hold a note in a bucket, so the crowd chanted merrily along.

U2

"Where the Streets Have No Name" was the closest U2 came to fulfilling its prophecy as something bigger than all of us. It was U2 at its most basic--all four musicians facing the audience, no frills and Bono tapping out the time with his foot and singing passionately. He made his first foray into the audience and was nearly mauled. The moment savored, he affected a Mephisto persona for a rote version of "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me."

Disco Ball Encore

The encore was a sight to behold. Over a blazing "Discotheque" beat, the lemon, which had sat dormant for much of the show, released its peel to reveal an oversized, egg-shaped disco ball. Lights bounced off it, sending reflections way out to the upper-deck bleachers.

The ball slowly hovered toward the end of the catwalk and cracked open, revealing the four members smothered in fog and strobes. They descended a staircase to play a mini-set of favorites at the edge of the walk: "With or Without You," "Mysterious Ways" and a solemn "One" (with Keith Haring animation on the screen). Bono hummed "Oh, Hallelujah" and dedicated it to Jeff Buckley.

U2

U2's Popmart tour is a lot of money for $52.50, but also a lot of concert. The two-hour-plus Oakland show achieved its goal in poking fun at America's obsession with commercialism while adding some good musical moments. Yet with all the spectacular effects and Edge's mind-sweeping guitar, U2 offered no genuine insights, relying instead on fans to make up their own minds.

The best insight was the full moon staring over the right-field bleachers. It was a chilling reminder that amid this wasteland of technology and media assault, there was something larger and untouchable than U2's or Oasis' collective egos.

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