Shooting craps

U2 takes over the world--and turns it into a commercial

The gesture--announced on every local radio station--has caused the scalpers who have been lining the Boulder Highway since 2 p.m. to take a huge bath, though it has made Tony and Maria's weekend. "We would have been happy to be outside just to feel the emotions of everyone here," says Maria, as Tony forks over $108.

Tony is incoherent with delight. He says he saw U2's Zoo TV tour in '93 and has been a fan ever since. "But I don't want to talk about it," he says, waving his ticket emphatically. "Man, I can't even discuss it, it was so good."

Maria, however, has never seen U2. "And look what a beautiful night it is!" she says enthusiastically. "It was crappy in L.A., but it's beautiful here, like, because U2 is here!"

Tony and Maria are symptomatic of why, from a practical point of view, Vegas is a good place to begin a tour. It has a finite metropolitan area, a relatively intimate 37,000-seat stadium, and hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms. More important, Vegas is a beacon for writers and celebrities, few of whom are able to resist its vulgar lure. And few have, judging by the rows of press in section 130. Besides an international contingent, there are representatives from Seattle, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Jose, Newark, Los Angeles, and USA Today. And so many more.

Given ticket sales, one has to wonder whether the public really considers this event a significant one in the annals of rock, or journalists have been coerced into covering it through a sort of group hysteria. "They've done a great job of exciting our curiosity about the tour," says Jon Pareles of The New York Times with a shrug when asked why he's covering the show a month before the (poorly selling) New York dates. "My paper has a national audience; that's why I'm here," he adds.

Other critics around him agree that it's a newsworthy event, but their opinions must be taken with a grain of salt, since going to Vegas is such fun. One critic from Salt Lake City says her paper insists she file three stories from here: She has chosen to do the David Cassidy show at a casino, the Evergreen drive-through-wedding-chapel story, and this.

Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, one of the band's biggest cheerleaders, is the most adamant of all about the importance of covering this event. "This is the most important band in 15 years, and this is an important tour," he opines. "I think the amount of press here is just an indication of the stature of the band."

Hilburn has already done three stories on U2 since the release of Pop, including one filed from Dublin and one previewing this tour from Vegas the week before. (The Los Angeles Coliseum show, slated for June 21, is nowhere near sold out.)

"I think this tour is making us ask ourselves a question regarding rock's future," Hilburn insists. "So few bands these days are selling, which shows a dissatisfaction with conventional rock. So to see a band go out [on the road] with this kind of confidence is great. It asks us, as journalists, to see whether this is just a cycle we're going through, or if there is something fundamentally wrong with rock as we know it. Can rock still be a mass phenomenon that means something to people again? And if this doesn't work, what will?"

Hilburn doesn't think the press is being coerced into helping the band's advance ticket sales, in spite of his three partisan stories. "I think it's a dangerous game for the media to take sides like that," he says. "You just have to state your honest opinion of whether it's good or not and not be an advocate. Rock and roll belongs to the public. The media shouldn't champion something. They should just cover it."

At 8 p.m., the stadium stands are still not filled because of traffic on the Boulder Highway, the sole route leading to the stadium. But the spacious sky is big and flaming, the air balmy, and just over the stadium walls one can see the desert, harsh and empty. It's a gorgeous night--and a fitting background for opening act Rage Against the Machine and its impassioned litany of songs expressing dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of capitalism and American society.

"Put it in your ass!" "You do what they told ya!" Yadda-yadda-yadda. Rage has always been an impressive live band, but what gives these guys the right to point fingers? From an industry point of view, they work well in a corporate setting--signing to a major label (Epic), playing every tour, and expressing, in carefully measured dollops, adolescent rage aimed at the evil of "the system."

Rage is currently the acceptable face of rock revolution--exactly what U2 was 13 years ago, when it launched the tour that spawned the Under a Blood Red Sky album and video. But those days are gone forever, and the blood-red sky has gone magenta. In place of the flag, there is now a giant disco ball, which will, later in the show, move to the middle of the arena and burst open, revealing the members of U2 dressed in campy Devo outfits. But that's all yet to come.

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