(Tempe, Arizona) — A national tour by the Irish rock band U2 got off to a controversial start Thursday night at Arizona State University in Tempe. The group issued a statement before the show deploring Gov. Evan Meacham’s recent rescission of a state holiday on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and announcing that they had made a financial contribution to a committee for the Governor’s recall.

The rock quartet’s singer and lyricist, Paul Hewson, who goes by the name Bono Vox, added further complications when he partly lost his voice shortly before the concert. ”I must have stayed out in the sun too long,” he told the capacity crowd at Arizona State’s Activity Center. “I’m glad you’re singing with me tonight.”

The crowd of about 14,300 did sing the choruses to U2’s songs, offering the band sufficient encouragement to turn what could have been a disastrous show into an affirmation that the bond between U2 and its audience is a special one.

‘Feedback From the Audience’

”I’ve heard people say this, but tonight the fans really were the stars of the show,” said Dave (the Edge) Evans, U2’s guitarist, afterward. ”The songs that we play often deal with belief in something, whether it’s our support for Amnesty International, or Martin Luther King, or just having some spiritual ideals and some dignity. I think people relate to that, and we get this feedback from the audience. That’s what makes our shows so special. If we aren’t feeling that buoyant when we go onstage, we’re just taken up by the crowd and carried along.”

U2 arrived in the Phoenix-Tempe area a week ago to begin final rehearsals for their 13-city, 30-concert spring tour of the United States, which concludes with six nights at New Jersey’s Brendan Byrne Arena May 11-13 and May 15-17. With the band’s new album ”The Joshua Tree” (Island Records) No. 1 in Britain and No. 3 in America, the demand for tickets has been exceptional. Front-row seats for Thursday’s show, which cost $15.50 at the box office, were reportedly changing hands for $150 or more. Ticket brokers said they had seen nothing like the demand since Bruce Springsteen’s last tour.

”Shortly after we arrived,” Mr. Evans recalled, ”I was sitting by the pool at the hotel reading the paper, and I read that the Doobie Brothers, who were planning to do a benefit reunion concert at Arizona’s Gila River Indian Reservation, had moved the event out of state because of the Governor’s rescission of the Martin Luther King holiday. I was just shocked.

”The band got together and we were all appalled, but it was just too late to cancel the shows. If we had known about this earlier, we would have canceled. As it was, we decided we had to issue a statement, to let the fans and the press know how we felt.” U2 has written and recorded two songs in praise of Dr. King, ”Pride (In the Name of Love)” and ”MLK.”

‘Let’s Return to the 60s’

After the Los Angeles band Lone Justice opened Thursday’s concert with a rousing set, the show’s promoter, Barry Fey, read U2’s statement to the audience. ”We were outraged when we arrived in Arizona last weekend and discovered the climate created by Governor Meacham’s rescission of the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” the statement said. Each sentence of the statement was greeted by thunderous cheers and applause. After the reaction had begun to die down at the end, Mr. Fey added a thought of his own. ”Let’s return to the 60’s,” he said, ”and let the music lead the way to justice.”

The Governor’s press secretary, Ron Bellus, called the entire issue ”a legal-technical matter.” The holiday had been established through an executive order by Governor Meacham’s predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, without the consent of the Legislature. Governor Meacham reviewed the executive order and declared it invalid. ”U2 is not familiar with the laws of the state of Arizona,” Mr. Bellus told the press. ”They should have lobbied against Governor Babbitt for creating an illegal holiday.”

U2 hit the stage at 9:15 P.M. and in the charged atmosphere established an immediate rapport with the audience. Mr. Vox, normally an emotional, open-throated singer, was hoarse and missing notes almost from the first, but Mr. Evans and U2’s bassist, Adam Clayton, helped him out on the songs’ choruses, while the drummer Larry Mullen Jr. laid down a brisk backbeat. On songs like the group’s early hit ”I Will Follow” and ”Pride (In the Name of Love),” the audience’s singing seemed as loud as the band’s.

The group might not have been able to carry off the concert without the audience’s good will. But it was a tribute to the ensemble’s musicianship as well. Mr. Evans played with clarity and an incisive rhythmic momentum, filling out the band’s sound with the judicious use of finger-picking patterns and resonant drones. His harmonies often bounced off Mr. Clayton’s full-bottomed bass lines in a manner that suggested the presence of additional instruments.

After the show, Mr. Evans noted that his formative influences included two guitarists associated with New York’s late-70’s punk-rock scene – Tom Verlaine of Television and Robert Quine of Richard Hell and the Voidoids – along with earlier favorites such as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

Grand Gestures Work in Concert

”I’ve been trying to delve more into blues and country music lately,” Mr. Evans said, ”going back to the originals, like Robert Johnson and Hank Williams. What we’re trying to do musically is to combine or bridge what I would call the post-blues approach of the punk-rock period with some of the better aspects of the earlier, more blues-oriented rock. As for the use I make of drones, that comes, I think, from being Irish; it’s like the sound of the pipes.”

The grand gestures of Bono Vox’s lyrics – the concern with victims of economic inequities and political repression, the appeals to spiritual aspirations, the desire to function as what he calls ”a conspiracy of hope” – can sometimes seem overly earnest on records, but they worked well in concert, getting the songs’ points across in spite of the lyricist’s ragged singing. In rock-and-roll, it’s the feeling that counts in the end, and the feeling was there. At times, the concert was moving in a way a more polished performance could not have been.

After the show, Bono Vox whispered hoarsely that the group could and would do better at subsequent performances. But the crowd, which left peaceably without the vociferous demand for multiple encores that has become such a rock-concert ritual, seemed well satisfied.

A band spokesman said tonight that Saturday night’s concert had been canceled on the suggestion of Mr. Vox’s doctor, but that unless complications developed, the remainder of the tour would be carried out as planned.

The New York Times/Robert Palmer

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