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U2 maintains its artistic muse

This is the most important tour we've ever done," proclaims U2 guitarist Edge by phone from his hotel room in Detroit. "Aside from the fact that everyone's aware of how much all of it costs, and how many people have come to the shows, and how much money it makes, for us as creative artists, we've never put so much effort into a project as with this tour."

All of which is pretty telling at this point. Nearly seven months after U2 launched its much bally-hooed PopMart concert tour in Las Vegas, the superstar band has wended its way across the U.S. and to Europe, lugging with it a colossal pile of high-tech equipment and a support army costing $250,000 per day to keep on the road. It has been hailed as the most ambitious tour in rock history. But more than that, PopMart has come to epitomize U2's effort to reinvent the concert experience.

Taking a few minutes out of a rare day off, Edge is once again doing his part as the distinguished spokesman for U2, helping to drum up a little media excitement to get sluggish ticket sales moving for the band's Monday night date at Houlihan's Stadium, a problem the band has faced in several U.S. markets since the tour began.

In addition to being one rock's most acclaimed guitar men, Edge also has a pleasant gift of gab. To a music journalist, he is a dream come true. In his gentle Irish brogue, he's a musician who speaks softly and eloquently on a variety of subjects, from U2's musical philosophies to behind-the-scenes stories of onstage foibles. Nowhere does he give the slightest hint of boredom in answering questions put to him for the umpteenth time.

The massive technological undertaking of PopMart dwarfs practically any road show before it. A laundry list of equipment, which includes a 170-foot wide LED screen with more than one-million light-emitting diodes, a 100-foot tall lighted arch, a one-million-watt sound system _ all of which, along with a crew of about 200 touring personnel, is hauled about in a caravan of 75 tractor-trailer trucks and buses.

Yet, despite its behemoth proportions, foremost in the minds of Edge and fellow U2 bandmates, vocalist Bono, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, has been making sure that the band's artistic muse is preserved.

"At first, we weren't sure whether it all was working the way we envisioned it," said Edge of the tour's impressive marriage of art and technology. Indeed, early criticism speared the show's overreach of gadgetry and special effects, something the band wanted desperately to avoid.

"We wanted it to be entertaining and fun, but we realized we needed to cut back on visuals and put the band back into the focus of the show," said Edge. "We also worked in some song arrangements that makes the music a little more direct."

PopMart seeks to affirm U2's place in an era where there are fewer distinctions between the commercial and creative aspects of art.

For a long time, the quartet that tumbled into the post-punk '80s as passionate, socially aware pop insurgents, wore its minimalist persona on its sleeve. But Edge adds, "We evolved, and while our basic beliefs still hold true, the realization was that for us to go onstage and pretend that we weren't a commercial entity as well as an artistic one would've been kind of dishonest. I mean, that's just the way it is."

The PopMart stage design, which features giant icons that decorate the stage in a Roy Lichtenstein/Andy Warhol-esqe panorama of neon kitsch, is U2's tongue-in-cheek visualizing of that art-commerce link and, adds Edge, provides the perfect vehicle to showcase the techno-influenced music from the band's latest album, Pop.

"Some of our fans were a little uncertain about what we're doing," said Edge. "To me, Pop is not a techno record. There are techno influences, certainly, just as Achtung Baby had an industrial sound to it. But an influence is just that, it's not a rebuilding of the band."

The band has enjoyed its ability to go in and change the music of the show when it feels a need. Songs like Mofo, the show's pile-driving opener, has had much of the original recording's sequencer riffs stripped away, leaving a more organic format for the band to work in. Similarly, U2's recent radio hit, Staring At the Sun, gets an all-acoustic treatment midway through the show when the band performs on its B stage.

Of course, a tour of this proportion would be unthinkable for all but a handful of pop acts. To understand the reign that U2 enjoys in its corner of pop music, it's worthwhile to consider that, in 1985, the Irish quartet earned Rolling Stone magazine's honor of "Band of the Eighties" _ two years before the band released what most people consider its career best, The Joshua Tree.

With Bono's intense, compelling vocals _ fueled by the urgent instrumental work of the Edge, Clayton and Mullen _ U2, like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and the Who before, enjoys a worshipful relationship with a broad, faithful audience. The audience seems pleased with the band's inner need to experiment and expand the music into innovative areas.

In the late 1980s, when an interviewer asked Edge what was there left for the band to do, he shot back, "I think we're about to reinvent rock 'n' roll." In 1991, the band released Achtung Baby, a head-snapping blend of sensuous dance beats and dramatic melodies wrapped around Bono's stirring lyrics. The album served as the last lure that non-believers would ever need.

"For us, Achtung Baby said to us it was okay to keep going," said Edge. "Not that it would have stopped us otherwise, but that we knew our fans would like what they were hearing."

Pop and its successor, 1993 Zooropa, both have had a tougher time nailing down the success of their predecessors. As radio has continued to shatter its formats during the '90s, U2 is no longer the staple of contemporary FM airplay that it was just a few years ago.

Says Edge: "Radio is in a very conservative mode right now. I don't think it embraces the spirit of rock 'n' roll like it did years ago. Back in the 1960s when bands like the Beatleswere experimenting with new technologies and breaking the rules of pop, there was more of a willingness in the industry to go after it."

PopMart has seemed to suffer at least a bit from U2's format orphancy. At a time when the band needs media visibility, it has been tough. Its single, Please entered Billboard's contemporary rock charts just last week, but is not a skyrocketing success. The band's Pop album, which reached the top spot the week it was released, faded from the Top 200 weeks ago.

Tickets for the Tampa show went on sale in February, yet as fall approached and bands such as the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac announced Florida tour dates, the band suddenly had competition.

Still, PopMart is hardly floundering. With a non-stop string of sold-out shows throughout the west and midwest, it was still the biggest grossing tour of the summer, and the biggest moneymaker of U2's near-20-year career.

"I'm not certain we would ever have done anything different," says Edge. "We had to go with what we know, and we made all of our decisions based on that. It's simply that we're not selling out all of the shows, but sometimes I'm not sure whether you can do anything about that anyway."

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