PHILADELPHIA — "So what do you think of all this?" U2's lead singer, Bono, laughingly asks the capacity crowd of 56,000 as he waves his hand at a 40-foot disco-ball lemon, a $6 million, 170-foot long video screen, and a towering golden arch. "This is where we work, this is where we play, this is our church."
This is PopMart, a huge spectacle of song and imagery that the Irish foursome is taking to 80 cities worldwide. At a cost of $250,000 per day, the 15-month PopMart tour blurs the line between work and play.
And if Bono's allusion to religion seems sanctimonious, consider the content of the songs from "Pop" to "Boy," the band's latest and first album titles, respectively, and the source of the show's first two songs.
In the set opener, "Mofo," Bono expresses his desire to fill a "god-shaped hole" before breaking into "I Will Follow," a song penned some 20 years earlier that depicts the same searching soul: "I was looking at myself; I was blind, I could not see."
True, all this seems a tad too serious for rock 'n' roll, and U2 knows it. PopMart is an over-the-top response to charges of unbecoming earnestness leveled at the group for years.
A karaoke-like sing-along of The Monkees' "Daydream Believer" delivers levity. Donning the duds of the Village People for an encore performance of the groove-rich "Discotechque" provides a curious parody of camp. Images culled from the Pop Art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein layer the irony.
PopMart is contradiction writ large and lurid: a scripted plea for spontaneity; a collective celebration of individuality; a guided and gilded tour through the artificial to locate the elusive real thing.
In addition to the 40-foot lemon that transports the band la Spinal Tap to a smaller stage for their first encore, we have a 12-foot olive perched atop a 100-foot swizzle stick and all the neon and glitter of Las Vegas, the site of the tour's opening night April 25.
Gone are the white flags of past tours, as the band considers stars of different stripes. Warhol's portraits of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Keith Haring's morphing genderless cartoon figures have replaced past projected images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Hiroshima.
The focus of the music has shifted as well. Yesterday's anthemic, politically blunt songs ("Sunday, Bloody Sunday," "Bullet the Blue Sky") that endeared the band to many throughout the '80s have given way to a more personal, candid brand of pop.
At moments throughout the Philadelphia show's two-hour set, the music moved from the shadows of the PopMart props to create that rare moment in arena rock: intimacy. "Please" and "With or Without You" - songs that examine honestly the words or gestures that define a relationship - came close to creating a moment's catharsis.
And the set closer, "One," seemed more like a confessional conversation between two friends than words sung to thousands several hundred yards away.
Why all the spectacle if the band's true worth lies in the music? During an extended introduction to "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," Bono thanked America for making U2 famous before hinting at an explanation for PopMart's bells and whistles: "We saw the corporate monster coming," he said, "and we decided to eat it before it ate us."
U2's guitarist the Edge recently said that the tour "deflects from the seriousness of the album," and that "a balance is important to strike." "Pop" is a serious album. "PopMart" is a silly spectacle. Together they offer more circus than bread.
* U2 will appear at Foxboro Stadium in Boston, July 1-2, and will then travel to Europe for three months before returning to the United States in October.