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by Bill McDowell

Well, after two months of prepping myself by reading others' reviews on this site, I finally got the chance to see PopMart for myself June 28 at Soldier Field. And while I'll say up front that the band's performance was worth every bit of the $52.50 ticket price, I have to admit, I walked away with some conflicting emotions about the show.

Musically, there were some genuinely transcendent moments: the addition of New Year's Day to the set; very enthusiastic audience singing made Still Haven't Found and All I Want is You even more powerful; Pride and Streets were tight and solid; and, in my humble opinion, the live version of Please is clearly the "Bad" of the 90s.

From all I have read, the band has tightened their sound substantially since the tour kicked off in Vegas and it showed. The songs from Pop were much more compelling on stage than on disc. Bono's voice was in solid form, although he had to go falsetto to hit the high notes in New Year's Day. Some of the songs in the set seemed a bit rushed, with little embellishment, but this was made up for later, when an extended ending was tagged onto Mysterious Ways and Bono did his "shine like stars" ending on With or Without You. His vocal ad-libs are my favorite part and I would have liked to have seen more. But then again, if they were always there, they wouldn't be special concert moments, would they?

My seats, toward the back and top of the stadium, allowed for an unbelievable visual experience: the Chicago skyline behind the stage; a full aerial view of the B-stage and a good vantage point to watch the crowd. One other bit of serendipity: The band played Still Haven't Found around 10:15 -- right about the time that the weekly fireworks display was shot from nearby Navy Pier. The sky exploded in color directly over the B-stage throughout All I want is You and Staring at the Sun. Very, very cool.

My only complaint on the sound was with the mix. This might just be a function of the acoustics at Soldier Field, but I had a tough time hearing the vocals. It seemed like Bono was competing with Edge's guitar. One frustrating moment came at the end of Mysterious Ways, when Bono was emoting into the microphone on-screen, but was completely drowned out by the guitar.

Finally, I hate to commit heresy, but the video screen that everyone has been raving about bugged me. To be honest, I walked away with the impression that the video guys have gotten the best of the band. The animated effects were fun to watch and in some cases genuinely enhanced the music. The problem is that the screen in this show often undermines its own purpose: To allow people throughout the stadium a close-up look of what's happening on stage. This is particularly important for this group, as some of Bono's most captivating moments are in his facial expressions and in his interactions with the crowd. What video there was of the band was so over-produced with effects that it became a distraction. At one point, my wife said disappointedly, "We might as well be watching MTV; you can't even tell for sure that what we're seeing is live."

This is unfortunate, particularly when there are so many people in the stadium who are relying on the video screen to create at least the illusion of intimacy. Several times, I felt like I was being force-fed singular images, when I know there were far more interesting things to watch on stage. And during the pitch-perfect acoustic reading of "Staring at the Sun," the screen was off altogether. Gee, thanks.

Compare this with the Zoo TV tour, where a stage full of monitors created deliberate distraction. The difference there was that no matter what other images were competing, there were nearly always a handful of prominent monitors where you could stay focused on Bono or other band members. With multiple monitors, the decision of where and how to focus attention was with the audience; with one giant screen, it remains backstage.

The band has never sounded better. But after seeing two multimedia U2 shows in a row now, I almost hope that the rumors of an "unplugged" album are true and that the next tour will be stripped down to basics.

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