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U2 chart a high course

BOSTON --There was, for me, a bit of trepidation involved with going back to see U2, Ireland's emerald of a rock band.

The feeling came not from qualms about U2's new music, but from the habit too many rock bands have of disappointing longtime fans once they reach a certain level of careering. Success bites; inspiration wanes; formula rules.

The Clash, a band that once held the passion banner high, fell most glaringly last summer on Cape Cod and in Boston.

U2, who first hit these parts in the fall of '80, showed on this visit to town that their popularity continues to swell. Not only did they sell out both their concerts, Thursday night and last night, but a third (larger) show has been added June 28 at the Worcester Centrum.

Well, as the Beach Boys once harmonized, "Don't worry baby, everything will turn out all right." U2s' concert Thursday night again reached a rare, wondrous zone - where rock 'n' roll transcended the ordinary and took the audience on a lift that was equal parts spiritual and sensual.

U2 are angelic upstarts. They arose out of the UK's post-punk movement - where the sound was hard-edged, yet spatial - but charted a course that was far more uplifting than their compatriots, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, Teardrop Explodes and the Psychedelic Furs. U2 takes tension, anger and indecision, and bathes it in a warming rock 'n' roll salve.

Thursday night U2 began with "Gloria," a song that sounded a call for redemption, worked their way through personal and political struggles ("Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Seconds," "New Year's Day") and closed with "I Will Follow," a song of hope, and "40," an elegiac tune with lyrics taken from the Bible's 40th Psalm.

Singer Bono Vox has a desperate tone; his vocals sound like pleas and prayers, the lyrics failure and hope. More often than not, emotional conflicts turned into shouts of joy, kicked into exultation by guitarist The Edge. U2 is an exuberant band. The Edge played meaty, yet clear, ringing lines that were both atmospheric and jarring. Chiming single notes were spun out of an orchestral web of melody. The Edge's keyboard work was also tasty; the early, quiet grace of "Tomorrow" gave way to a torrent of emotional release.

Much of U2's music is about quest. Bono, whose throat was ailing Thursday night, is always searching for answers ("I don't know how to say what's got to be said," in "Two Hearts Beat As One") or redemption (in "Gloria"). The audience comes along for the trip; it becomes their trip. Songs of passage segued into songs of global turmoil.

But U2's appeal is also physical, deeply immersed in the communicative dance/funk spirit. Bono plunged into the crowd during "Surrender," which mutated into Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." Later, Bono was on the side balcony, precariously walking it with his hand reaching out to fans.

It was a gesture of supreme trust, reminiscent of the walk through the crowd Peter Gabrieltook last year during "Lay Your Hands On Me."

Several years ago, Ray Davies, leader of the Kinks, was asked if there was a common thread that ran throughout his work. "Yes," he said, "I think there's an element of weakness in all my material." The same could be said for U2. Ah, but what is done with that weakness! It evolves into strength and power.

Opening, Boston's Someone and the Somebodies displayed taut rhythmic sense, but a melodic linearity - a lack of variation - that wore thin too quickly.

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