Flop Mart

U2 brings its carnival to Denver--and Denver shrugs.

Meanwhile, in Denver (the third stop on the tour), public response to the upcoming U2 concert was nightmarish; only around 27,000 tickets had been sold just days before the date (a Fey Concerts source puts the final tally at just under 30,000). That might seem like a big story, but reporters and critics at the mainstream media outlets in the area ignored it so consistently that they seemed like victims of mass hypnosis. (Only the Denver Post's Bill Husted had the bad form to break ranks.) Both daily newspapers sent writers to Las Vegas to review a show that they would be reviewing again a week later; of course they returned with glowing notices. Radio stations gave away reams of tickets in between announcements that "good tickets are still available." (Yeah--about 35,000 of them.) And TV stations provided pre-event coverage puffier than anything this side of a Klondike and Snow update. The sight of stout Channel 7 reporter Bill Clarke risking a coronary while chasing after Bono at the airport and shouting, "Where's the parties?" was enough to send even the most sober-sided observer into paroxysms of laughter.

None of this prelude would have mattered, of course, had U2's Pop Mart tour lived up to expectations. But with all the hoopla, what were the chances of that? Slim--and none.

May 1 at Mile High was cloudy, overcast, windy and cold--perfect weather for a tragedy. But the members of Rage Against the Machine had no interest in playing at a wake. Even though they kicked off their set at two minutes past seven, when the sky was still light and the crowd was even sparser than it would be later in the evening, they attacked their songs with a fever and passion that energized ticket-buyers, many of whom seemed to have come to see them, not U2.

Rage lead singer Zack de la Rocha continues to fly using only his left wing, but his anger was more than enough to overwhelm his one-dimensionality; he stomped, hopped and stormed around the stage like a hyperactive child throwing the mother of all tantrums. Keeping up with him fit for fit were bandmates Tim Bob (bass), Brad Wilk (drums) and Tom Morello (guitar), who have developed into a three-piece of formidable power. Musically, they offer a fairly routine menu--punk-funk, with a side order of hip-hop--but they cook it better than practically anyone else on the current scene. Morello, in particular, is an absolute marvel, using a seemingly limited amount of riffs in an exceedingly imaginative and propulsive way. During cuts like "A Bullet in Your Head" and an unexpected, funkified and all-but-unrecognizable cover of Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," the four flailed away like cops from their hometown of Los Angeles working over Rodney King. As a special bonus, Tim Bob played for part of Rage's allotted 45 minutes wearing a Denver Broncos helmet and blue-and-orange shorts--which constitutes the closest thing to a joke these notoriously humorless men have ever told. The group used no lights and no special effects and was dwarfed by the enormity of U2's stage, but it nonetheless left boosters buzzing. If there was ever a bad sign for a headliner, that was it.

Nearly an hour later, with the sun down and the air exuding a bitter chill, the lights went down and the enormous sound system began pumping out a remixed rendition of "Pop Muzik," the 1979 one-shot by Britisher Robin Scott, better known as M. At the same time, the immense video screen--a curved goliath that dominated an entire end of the stadium--began flashing logos behind props such as a towering golden arch, an oversized lemon sheathed in cloth and what looked like a cross between a cocktail olive and an atomic symbol. In the midst of this sensory overload, the Edge, Clayton and Mullen appeared on a walkway built onto the field and moved toward the stage; they were trailed by Bono, who was clad in a boxing robe. As he shadow-boxed down the aisle, it didn't take a Freudian to figure out where he was coming from: He was brimming with poise and ready to take on anyone and everyone who stood in his way.

The band's first combination was indicative of the contradictions that followed. The proceedings began with "Mofo," the most overtly techno of Pop's offerings. But despite (or perhaps because of) its pulsing beats and overtly modern sonics, the track stubbornly refused to take off. When some acts take on an unfamiliar style, they are able to infuse it with enough of their essence to make it their own. But here the U2 four seemed to be posing in new outfits that didn't fit them. The fans noticed: Their reaction did not become wildly enthusiastic until the group segued into a straightforward version of its first FM favorite, "I Will Follow." By this response, it was evident that the majority of the people at the stadium hadn't dropped fifty dollars or more on a ticket in order to have their minds expanded by dance pyrotechnics. They were more interested in nostalgia.

The musicians seesawed between these two extremes throughout the night, blending new material accented by tongue-in-cheek pictorials intended to comment on the capitalist culture (now, there's a fresh topic) with note-for-note regurgitations of their greatest hits. The juxtaposition was an uneasy one, in large part because Bono could not commit to either role. He seems to admire David Bowie and Madonna, who are able to disappear inside alternate personas on a regular basis, but when he tries the same trick, he doesn't have the moxy to follow through with it. The same failure of nerve was evident on U2's last stadium jaunt, dubbed Zoo TV; Bono would slip into the skin of a lounge-lizard type known as the Fly for a few minutes, but just as you were about to accept him in this guise, he would start begging to be accepted as the same old melodramatic apostle of Christ that he had always been. Such inconsistencies marked him as a lousy actor, but they also suggested that by acting in the first place, this most seemingly forthright of performers was unintentionally revealing himself to be a dilettante of the highest caliber.

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