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This article was first published on CLUAS in August 2001

From Popmart to Elevation

Can U2 finally get the balance right?

In April 1997 on the eve of the Popmart gig in Las Vegas I found myself sitting alone on a nearly empty 747 en route to the gambling Mecca. Getting slowly drunk on the airline's bad wine I started to ponder the wisdom of my decision one month earlier to travel to U2's sold-out Vegas gig without a ticket.

U2's 'Popmart' stageHowever with a bit of beginner's luck I managed to overcome the heavy odds of this gamble. The first step was to book myself in to a cheap room in the Pyramid-shaped 'Luxor' hotel, the same hotel the band were staying in. Then at 8 o'clock on the morning of the gig I called the hotel switchboard. Chancing my arm I asked to be put through to a fellow hotel guest called Paul McGuinness. The operator, to my astonishment, obliged and a few seconds later I hear the plum, but clearly groggy, tones of U2's manager at the other end of the line. Realising that I had just woken him up I quickly launched into the pathetic story of my mini-odyssey, placing a particular emphasis on my non-ticket holding status. It would seem that my timing was immaculate because, in an apparent flush of misplaced early morning pity, he immediately arranged a ticket for me for the gig.

And an unforgettable gig it was but, alas, for all the wrong reasons. Yes, the beast of 'Popmart' that was revealed in Las Vegas was a dazzling, jaw-dropping vision peppered with an oversized lemon and, of course, memorable music. However at the end of the concert as the flood-lit stadium emptied I found myself staring at the imposing stage trying to reconcile the evening's unprecedented spectacle with my unexpected disappointment. Despite everything there was something deeply unsatisfying about the whole affair. The band's insistence on pop kitsch, multiple costume changes and the latest visual media technologies was a massive distraction from what it was that brought 50,000 people to a stadium in the middle of a desert - the songs. Somehow while pushing the technology envelope U2 neglected to notice that scribbled on it was an address different to their intended musical destination. The shift of emphasis from music to spectacle that started for the band with 1992's ZOO TV tour was now finally signed, sealed and delivered.

U2's 'Elevation' stageSo when U2 announced earlier this year that they would be going on tour to promote their latest album 'All that you can't leave behind' I was a bit apprehensive. After the multi-media excesses of their previous 3 tours one sensed their credibility was up for serious scrutiny. Would an infatuation with visuals get the better of them again? Or would the songs be allowed to do the talking? Fortunately I this time managed to keep my curiosity in check and stayed on this side of the Atlantic when they opened the 'Elevation' tour in Miami last March. Nevertheless at the beginning of July I hopped on a plane to Copenhagen to check out the first concert of the European leg of the tour. Old habits after all do die hard.

Comparing the Copenhagen concert with the Vegas outing is difficult because, put simply, there was no comparison. With the band evidently more relaxed on the Copenhagen stage, it soon became clear that back-to-basics ethos underpinning the new album was echoed in the 'Elevation' live show. Gone was the visual assault of the senses, out the window flew the costume changes and, thankfully, the mammoth mirror ball lemon was let out to rot somewhere. Instead we got 4 guys, a bunch of amps, a heart-shaped ramp and - center stage - some great tunes. Yes, there was some visual stuff going on but it was mostly discreet and it perfectly complemented the music. The songs were again allowed to breathe.

Bono meets with Putin and Blair in GenoaOn balance it may be a creative success, however the tour is not immune to criticism. On the North American leg of the tour a very significant proportion of tickets each night sold for a face value of $130. Such an inflated asking price can only sit uncomfortably alongside Bono's persistent calls for Western governments to curb their self-serving greed and cancel third world debts.

Nonetheless the concerts in Slane will no doubt form a special bookend to the Elevation tour, a tour that time may judge as U2's most satisfying and musically complete. Despite the statement of intent in the tour's title U2 will probably not elevate anybody lucky enough to have a Slane ticket. Instead concert-goers will experience something a little closer to earth - 2 unique hours of spirited and, on occasion, genuinely moving rock and roll.

One final note: any chess-playing U2 fans who one day find themselves crossing Bono's path should challenge him to a game. A competitive chess player before joining U2, he usually carries a portable chess set and, word has it, he relishes a spontaneous game with a willing challenger. Chess, it would seem, may not be so uncool after all.

Eoghan O'Neill

(bullet) A chopped-down 800 word version of this article was published in the Irish Independent newspaper on August 25th 2001 (the day of U2's 1st Slane concert). Click here to see the version the paper published (registration may be required).

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