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A new sound under pressure

BOSTON --The starmaking machinery is already in overdrive. The Irish band U2 is being propelled by that familiar deluge of hype from a record industry starved for new blood from overseas - new blood that's going to show staying power and not dribble into a "here today, gone tomorrow" oblivion.

There's no question that U2 has the potential to become an influential, lasting group, but the pressure being put upon them is absurd. Two of them are 19, and two of them are 20, yet they're already being touted by the president of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, as the label's most important signing since King Crimson.

The band does open your eyes on their recent American debut album, "Boy." One of this year's best new releases so far, the music displays an exciting, original sound merging avant-garde pop with everything from 60's psychedelic guitar to Pink Floyd grandeur, percussive bells and strange, declamatory vocals and gauzy, surreal lyrics that still retain a nifty humanistic touch.

In person, though, the band blows both hot and cold. Last night's first show got off to a tough start because drummer Larry Mullin's bass drum broke, and the band never seemed to really hit stride. The band's strength is to sneak up on you by following slow, moody passages with moments of rave-up energy, but they tended to become predictable after a while, plus singer Bono employed too much echo. This tended not only to obscure the lyrics, but to give the band a gimmicky impression that undermined their talent.

Bono, however, who looked and moved a bit like a young Rod Stewart, definitely seems like a star of the future. He kept the show from crumbling during the early technical hassles (reading the audience's mind by saying, "Ahh, I knew they weren't as good as they said they were"), and conveyed a true sense of urgency as he ran from the back to the front of the stage, raising the mike like The Who's Roger Daltrey. He also won admirers through his modesty, saying how impressed he was with local opening act La Peste (who warmed up the sellout crowd with a relentlessly intense set) and how impressed he was by the way Boston musicians praise each other. "I'm from Ireland, where not too many people say good things about other bands," he said.

U2's potential was verified by songs like the guileless "Into the Heart" (where guitarist The Edge, who never uses his real name, reeled off some gorgeously lyrical runs), the rocking "Stories for Boys" and the anthemic "I Will Follow."

The reason, though, you can't yet give a total stamp of approval to the group is that their nonalbum material was weak ("11 O'Clock," their new single overseas, lacked any hook to grab onto) and outside of Bono, the band had a mechanistic stage presence. Neither Bassist Adam Clayton, nor The Edge, for that matter, showed much expression.

The night was another case of really wanting to like a new band, but just not being fully able to, in spite of the massive publicity campaign the group has received. Right now, their album is better than they are in person, and for a band to last, this shouldn't be true.

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