U2: Band on The Run

U2 soars with a top album, a hot tour and songs of spirit and conscience

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He remembers it this way. Outside San Salvador, 30 or 40 miles up in the hills, mortars began to hit the village, and bombs cratered the hillside. Run.

That was his first thought. And this was the second: Where? It was open all around. The ground shook. The farmers looked at the traveler from Ireland and smiled and pointed. They tried to be reassuring. "That is over there," they said. "We are over here."

"I felt," says the traveler, thinking back in a safer place, "such a fool in the face of it. Those guys lived with it all their lives, and it meant nothing to them. But the fear I felt that day . . ." Just talking couldn't say it all. It would take a song.

When Bono tears loose on U2's Bullet the Blue Sky, you can still hear the ache of fear in his voice, the closeness of the memory. The song is immediate and passionate, a cry of conscience on an album full of oblique social speculation and spiritual voyaging. The Joshua Tree is not, it would seem at first, a record for these times. Bono and the rest of the Irish band called U2 seem to be citizens of some alternative time frame spliced from the idealism of the '60s and the musical free-for-all of the late '70s. Their songs have the phantom soul of the Band, the Celtic wonderment of their compatriot Van Morrison and some of the assertiveness of punk, refined into lyrical morality plays.

Their concerts are as revivifying as anything in rock, with a strong undertow of something not often found this side of Bruce Springsteen: moral passion. U2's songs speak equally to the Selma of two decades ago and the Nicaragua of tomorrow. They are about spiritual search, and conscience and commitment, and it follows that some of the band's most memorable performances -- and, not incidentally, the ones that have helped U2 break through to an even wider audience -- have been in the service of a good cause, at Live Aid or during last summer's tour for Amnesty International. This is not, then, just a band for partying down. "Partying is a disguise, isn't it?" Bono asks, and does not wait for an answer. This is a band that believes rock music has moral imperatives and social responsibilities. There is no one better than U2 at bringing "over there" back "over here," and setting it down right by the front door, where no one can miss it.

U2's sixth and best album, The Joshua Tree, in stores for little more than a month, hit No. 1 on Billboard's chart this week. The album's first single, With or Without You, has made the band's heaviest mark on Top 40 radio and is already in the Top Ten. Other tunes on The Joshua Tree (the title was inspired by a California desert town where '70s Rocker Gram Parsons died) are likely to keep it company. U2 launched a scheduled 18-month world tour in Arizona just three weeks ago, will play the U.S. through mid-May, perform in Europe most of the summer, then return to the States in September. "I guarantee you that | when U2 comes back this record will be bigger than ever," says Andy Denemark, a director of programming at NBC Radio. "There's a lot of depth to this album."

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