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U2’s ‘PopMart’ Show Doesn’t Match Its ‘Zoo TV’ Triumph

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

U2 has spoiled us.

How else do you explain it when the great Irish band plays two hours of some of the most appealing music of the rock era, yet there is still a sense of disappointment in the air?

After the quartet gave us the “Sgt. Pepper” of rock shows with its continually challenging and inventive “Zoo TV” stadium tour of 1992-93, we expected the group to top itself with the new “PopMart.”

In retrospect, U2 was foolhardy for even trying.

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There were splendid elements in “PopMart” on Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, including a spectacular video monitor that covered more than 7,000 square feet. They probably would have been enough to make the tour appear a triumph if it had preceded “Zoo TV.”

Coming after “Zoo TV,” “PopMart” seems anticlimactic. For all the show’s glamour and wonderful music, the staging--including such static items as a 100-foot golden arch to underscore materialism in society--rarely approaches the “Zoo TV” punch.

There was the same gap between music and theatrical imagination when “PopMart” began its world trek two months ago in Las Vegas. But it was easy at the time to suspect the band simply needed time to work with the material. After all, U2 worked on the “Zoo TV” staging for months in arena settings before moving it to stadiums.

But time hasn’t helped with “PopMart.”

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Rather than “Sgt. Pepper,” this tour may well be remembered as U2’s equivalent of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” That film was a heady attempt in 1967 to extend the ambition of the band’s “Sgt. Pepper” excitement. The music was outstanding, including “The Fool on the Hill,” but the film was fuzzy--more mystery than magic.

Things started off promisingly Saturday.

After a blistering opening set by Rage Against the Machine, U2--as in Las Vegas--had fun with the stadium setting and the high expectation level.

Rather than enter the stage from the wings, lead singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. were led by security guards across the Coliseum floor, moving through the crowd much like a boxing entourage on the way to the ring. Bono was even wearing a hooded robe and jabbing the air like a boxer when he finally got to a ramp that led to the stage.

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You could almost hear the ring of the bell for Round 1 as U2 sprang into “MoFo,” one of the most dynamic tunes from the excellent new “Pop” album. It’s a song, in part, about the disorienting effects of rock idolatry, and the huge blowups of the band on the massive video monitor framed the theme nicely.

With the Edge’s wailing guitar leading the way, the band then went into “I Will Follow,” the first of what has become a series of pop-rock anthems for the group. And the power of the music pushed the show forward.

The first sign of trouble was in “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” a song from the “Achtung Baby” album that reflects on the ways advertising and technology, among other things, can make images of people and life seem more enticing--or better--than the real thing.

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The song’s staging was a highlight of the “Zoo TV” tour because Bono used a tiny, hand-held camera during the number to project his image on a screen. And, sure enough, the giant image was more dynamic than the real Bono below.

At the Coliseum on Saturday, however, Bono simply wore a T-shirt that gave him the appearance of a bare-chested he-man.

Other numbers, new and old, also suffered from relatively uninspired staging. The various Pop art images that were flashed on the screen were simply too timid. The staging exception: a tacky tourist turn by Bono during “Miami,” leading directly into the stark, alarming “Bullet the Blue Sky.”

By the end of the evening, it was hard not to think that U2 made a mistake by setting up staging--rather than music--as the challenge of the tour. If the group had returned to arenas and minimal staging this time, the show would have been a knockout. Even the surprise appearance of the Monkees’ Davy Jones to sing “Daydream Believer” (a song the Edge had sung elsewhere on the tour) would have been more fun.

For one thing, the “Pop” music would have been better served because it is as intimate and personal as any U2 has ever made--songs about the search for values and comfort. Second, it would have been the hottest ticket in town. As it is, the tour has been plagued by reports of sluggish sales in some cities. The Coliseum, for instance, did not appear sold out.

One of Saturday’s most stirring moments suggested what might have been. With the multimillion-dollar stage effects turned off, Bono, backed by the Edge on acoustic guitar, sang the lovely “Staring at the Sun” with spellbinding intimacy. In that moment, the focus, quite correctly, was on the music, and expectations were met.

The imagination of “Zoo TV” underscored the fact that U2 is the best rock band in the world. Unfortunately, the weaker elements of “PopMart” tended to obscure it.


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