Rock's U2 Lightens Up

The band's current tour pokes fun at its heavy, socially conscious image

CALL it a media blitz. Or an audio-visual extravaganza.

U2's current "ZOO TV" tour is testimony to a new sense of identity for the rock band: The four-man group from Dublin has plugged into a more playful and entertaining image in performance. Like all good arena acts, they have repackaged themselves to keep the steam rising.

In the past, U2 has been known for its passionate social commentary and disregard for elaborate staging.

All that has changed with this tour. Televisions and large-screen backdrops zap out words, images, film clips, and live action. Cable TV beams in by satellite, showing the Home Shopping Network, for example. Headlights from eight Trabant cars (from Germany) suspended from the ceiling spotlight the performers. Lasers and strobes flash, disco balls spin and reflect.

Familiar to Music Television audiences since their video "Gloria," the group is no stranger to the importance of video in pop music; in fact, MTV is sponsoring this tour.

"We don't tend to think of them as a video band, but they are. The idea of 'ZOO TV' is not so far-fetched," says Carter Alan, music director for Boston radio station WBCN and author of an upcoming book on U2.

Riding on the success of their latest release, "Achtung Baby," which debuted on the charts at No. 1, and a larger-than-life reputation, U2 is two weeks into its North American tour. Shows have been selling out in a matter of minutes. As they were dubbed in 1987 by Time magazine, U2 is still "Rock's Hottest Ticket."

"Thanks a lot for all the trouble you went through to get tickets and all that," lead singer Bono said to the audience at the Providence Civic Center, referring to the only-by-phone, limited-number ticket policy that the band's management installed to discourage scalpers.

The group recently completed a swing through New England, appropriately playing on St. Patrick's Day in Boston, the city that gave the musicians their first taste of frenzied popularity more than 10 years ago. The last time U2 toured was in 1987 after the release of their Grammy Award-winning "Joshua Tree."

The "ZOO TV" tour and "Achtung Baby" serve to debunk an image that the band is too serious, self-righteous, and set in their mysterious ways. " 'Achtung Baby' is definitely a reaction to the myth of U2," guitarist The Edge told Musician magazine in an interview recently.

Says Mr. Alan: "The air had to be let out so that they would be seen as a music band instead of a band of politicians."

"Achtung Baby" avoids political issues and focuses on personal relationships. Yet it is still "just as passionate and emotional," comments Alan. U2 has also broken ground musically with the acclaimed record by incorporating hip-hop rhythms and industrial grinds into its creative mix. The first eight songs of the concert were from "Achtung Baby."

While the show's impressive multimedia display glorifies the idea of fame, U2 uses it as a parody. Bono especially seems to be making fun of rock stardom. Looking like a rock rebel with his blackened hair, bug-eye sunglasses, and black leather suit, the charismatic singer played the showman well. He sang, he swaggered, and he later sported a silver lame suit.

If the show seemed media-heavy and contrived at first - with all the sequenced music and calculated presentation - things loosened up as the evening went on. At one point, Bono led the Edge, bass guitarist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. to a small catwalk stage to play a semi-acoustic set, a stark and welcome contrast to the high-tech overload. Then the band took off into a flight of audience favorites, such as "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Pride," closing with two mellow songs. U2's 'ZOO TV' TOUR: March: 23, Montreal; 24, Toronto; 26, Cleveland; 27, Auburn Hills, Mich; 30, Minneapolis; 31, Chicago; April: 5, Dallas; 6, Houston; 7, Austin, Texas; 10, Tempe, Ariz.; 12, 13, Los Angeles; 15, San Diego; 17, Sacramento, Calif.; 18, Oakland, Calif.; 20, Portland, Ore.; 21, Tacoma, Wash.

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