U2, The Pretenders and Lou Reed, onstage at Cologne, Germany, in 1987.

U2, The Pretenders and Lou Reed, onstage at Cologne, Germany, in 1987. (Anita Gosch / S&S)

ROCK 'N' ROLL has a new god and his name is Bono.

Paul Hewson, a.k.a. Bono, lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, drove a crowd of 70,000 to near-religious delirium last week at the Müngersdorfer Stadium in Cologne, Germany.

The band's 90-minute performance was everything one would imagine a U2 concert to be when one cranks up their massive rock opuses on the headphones and lets the trancelike melodies transport one to another world.

It's uncanny — almost frightening — to experience the sheer mesmerizing effect U2 has on the audience, like the kind of hypnotic powers that was once reserved for a Jerry Falwell or Jim Bakker.

There was something that seemed to draw the fans to the stage, something that made them want to clap, to dance, to sing every single word of every song.

"U2 is what church should be," said guitarist and record producer T Bone Burnett in a recent interview with Time magazine.

One couldn't help but shudder when the fans began to sway and chant even before Bono sang the first words of Sunday Bloody Sunday, their faces aglow with adulation; when they continued to sing the chorus of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For even after the band left the stage; when the entire stadium became one huge, throbbing mass of emotion during Pride (In the Name of Love), the anthem dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King.

It isn't easy following in the footsteps of Bruce Springsteen as the most successful stadium act ever. Nor is it easy for one individual to maintain such sway over a crowd so huge without the whole thing becoming nothing more than an overblown display of self-importance.

Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood has tried it and failed. Jim Kerr of Simple Minds succeeds somewhat. But Bono does it best. When Bono stands center-stage, raising his arms to the sky like some latter-day messiah, you know it's not simply showmanship; rather, the gesture comes from somewhere deep within, a heartfelt gesture of both hope and despair.

Veteran rocker Lou Reed and the Pretenders performed as warm-up acts for U2.

Though Reed looked healthier than ever before, the former lead singer and songwriter of the drug-oriented Velvet Underground in the late '60s failed to spark the audience last week. Once known as the "King of Decadence" and celebrated for his idiosyncratic and complex styles, Reed seems to have lost the spirit that marked his tunes. These days, it seems he's only in it for the money.

Only once did Reed draw more than just polite applause from the audience: during the sole Top 10 hit of his career, the 1973 song Walk on the Wild Side. It's a wonder that Reed would have saved this rock classic for last. One would have thought that once he got the crowd going, he might have been able to keep up the excitement and had a more attentive audience for the rest of his show.

The Pretenders fared much better. Their songs have more of an '80s sense of urgency compared with Lou Reed's plodding 70s style of music.

Maybe it was the familiarity of their old hits (Back on the Chain Gang, Show Me and the like), or maybe it was that special spark that lead singer/rhythm guitarist Chrissie Hynde brought to the show. But the way the fans cheered and clapped during the performance, one could well have imagined they had come just to see the Pretenders.

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